Defendant’s newspaper published an advertisement alleging that the police force in Montgomery, Alabama mistreated civil rights protestors. Plaintiff contended he had been libeled because he was the city commissioner in charge of the Montgomery police force.
Actual malice is required for a plaintiff to recover for libel in defamation actions brought by public officials against their critics.
The New York Times ran a full-page advertisement focusing on the student-led civil rights movement and the legal defense of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of the allegations within the advertisement contained falsehoods and exaggerations. Nonetheless, certain paragraphs accused the police force in Montgomery, Alabama of spearheading a “wave of terror” against black student-protestors and Dr. King. Although L.B. Sullivan (plaintiff) was not explicitly named in the publication, he was the Montgomery commissioner who supervised the city’s police force. Sullivan contended that the charges could be read as referring to him. He brought a libel action against the New York Times Company (defendant), who publishes the newspaper.
Whether the constitutional protections for speech and press restrict a state’s power to award damages in a libel action brought by public officials against their critics?
Yes, the Constitution limits a state’s power to award damages for libel in a suit brought by public officials against their critics. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama is reversed.
Public debatę should remain uninhibited. As such, debate on public issues may include caustic and unpleasantly sharp attacks on public officials. This debate does not carve out an exception for false attacks on public officials. After all, the constitutional protections afforded by the First Amendment do not turn on the truth of the statement. A federal rule is required that prohibits public officials’ recovery from a defamatory falsehood relating to their official conduct unless they prove the statement was made with “actual malice.” This actual malice test requires a showing that the defendant made the statement with either: (1) knowledge of its falsity or (2) with reckless disregard of its potential falsity. Here, there is no showing of actual malice on the part of the New York Times Corporation at the time of publication. At most, there is evidence that the advertisement was published without the newspaper having checked the accuracy of their sources. However, this evidence supports at most a finding of negligence, not actual malice.