New York Times v. Sullivan
This Case In History
New York Times v. Sullivan, handed down in the midst of the civil rights movement, changed the inquiry for libel actions, strengthening the freedoms of speech and press when directed at government behavior. L. B. Sullivan, a city commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, sued the Times and four black clergymen over an advertisement placed by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South. The full page ad, which described abuses that students and civil rights activists had suffered at the hands of police and state authorities in various southern cities, contained several inaccuracies. Though the inaccuracies were minor, the Supreme Court of Alabama upheld a judgment of $500,000 against the defendants. In a unanimous 9–0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that public officials cannot recover damages for false statements regarding their official conduct unless they can prove actual malice—that is, that the defendant or defendants knew the statements were false or made them with reckless disregard as to whether they were true or false. The decision freed the press and others to comment on government conduct by reducing fears of enormous damage awards based on minor inaccuracies.