New York Times Company v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254; 84 S. Ct. 710; 11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964)

New York Times Company v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254; 84 S. Ct. 710; 11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964)

Facts—Sullivan, a City Commissioner of Montgomery County, Alabama, brought a civil action for libel against the New York Times and various African American signatories of a full-page advertisement in that newspaper that Sullivan deemed to be libelous. A Circuit Court in Montgomery County awarded Sullivan $500,000 in punitive damages, which the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed.


(a) Is this award for libel in violation of freedom of speech and press as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments?

(b) What standard should be applied in cases where public officials sue for libel in matters involving acts committed in their public capacities?

Decisions—(a) Yes;

(b) To win libel judgments related to their conduct in of- fice, public officials must demonstrate that statements made about them were made with “actual malice,” that is with knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity.

ReasonsJ. Brennan (9–0). Brennan’s review of the advertisement in question noted that it did not specifically mention Sullivan by name. It did contain a number of factual inaccuracies, although there was no evidence that it resulted in any “actual pecuniary loss” to Sullivan. Brennan rejected Alabama’s claim that this case involved private as opposed to public action since the libel judgment clearly affected the rights of speech and press. He similarly distinguished this case from prior cases regulating “commercial” speech that did not convey the same public information as that contained in the advertisement in question. Although the Court has recognized that “libel” is not, per se, protected by the First Amendment, it should be particularly sensitive to awards given to criticism of official conduct. The First and Fourteenth Amendments have expressed a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” The test of truth is insufficient in and of itself, because some degree of misstatement is likely in public speech. Although never struck down in court, the attack on the validity of the Sedition Act of 1798 has “carried the day in the court of history.” Civil suits can have a similar chilling effect on free speech as do criminal laws. Laws requiring complete truthfulness for all factual assertions would lead to “self-censorship.” The constitution “prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Alabama’s presumption of actual malice does not meet such a burden. Just as public officials enjoy protection for comments they make in pursuit of their duties, so too criticisms of public officials must remain robust. There is insufficient evidence to show actual malice in this case or to demonstrate that the materials in question referred specifically to Sullivan.

J. Black’s concurrence would completely prohibit damages to public officials for criticisms of how they handled their jobs. He feared that the doctrine of “actual malice” would prove to be “an elusive, abstract concept, hard to prove and hard to disprove.” J. Goldberg’s concurrence also advocated “an absolute, unconditional privilege to criticize official conduct despite the harm which may flow from excesses and abuses.” He argued, however, that “Purely private defamation has little to do with the political ends of a self governing society” and that it could thus be regulated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Law Faculty
error: Content is protected !!