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Brief for the Petitioners

Summary Of Argument

The State of Alabama and its public officials have developed refined and sophisticated schemes of repression, striking directly at the rights of free speech and press, the roots of our democracy. To silence people from criticizing and protesting their wrongful segregation activities, Alabama officials now seek to utilize civil libel prosecutions which require still less proof than was required under the infamous Sedition Act of 1798, 1 Stat. 596.

The libel prosecutions and enormous judgment herein are clearly induced by Alabama's massive "cradle to grave" statutory system of racial segregation, and clearly constitute another "ingenious" scheme by the State of Alabama and its public officials to suppress criticism of the political conduct of Southern public officials. As such, they clearly constitute prohibited state action and cannot be protected from review by mere labels such as "libel per se."

The preferred First and Fourteenth Amendments' freedoms of speech, press, assembly and association are the very cornerstone of the Bill of Rights. Moreover, the constitutional protection of criticism of the political conduct and actions of public officials extends even to exaggerations and inaccuracies.

Since " … public men are as it were, public property" (Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U.S. 250,263), criticism and defamation of their official conduct is clearly within the protections guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The judgment and proceedings below clearly abridge these basic constitutional protections, especially in view of the vital public interest in the integration struggle, the role of petitioners as spiritual leaders of the non-violent resistance movement, and the unconscionable penalty imposed below.

In addition to their patent disregard of these preferred constitutional protections, the Alabama Courts rendered and affirmed the judgment below on a record devoid of evidence of publication by petitioners, evidence of their consent to or authorization of publication, or evidence of damage of any kind to respondent due to the publication of the alleged libel. This disregard is all the more flagrant where the libel alleged is based solely on one claimed minor discrepancy in an advertisement (which is substantially correct) that nowhere mentions respondent by name or refers to him by office or title. Further, they attempted to meet petitioners' defenses that they had not published the ad and that it was not libelous, by adopting definitions of libel, libel per se and ratification, so strained, vague and detached from established legal principles as to amount in and of themselves to unconstitutional infringements of petitioners' rights.

Moreover, imposition of such liability because of petitioners' silence abridges petitioners' First Amendment rights of free association and belief.

10 The Times' Trial Counsel stated that the Sullivan verdict "could only have been the result of the passion and prejudice revived by that celebration [the Centennial Commemoration] and other events embraced within that Civil War celebration" and the failure of the Court to adjourn the trial even during the day "while ceremonies took place changing the name of the Court Square to "Confederate Square" (R.2222); and again that plaintiff [Sullivan] "was allowed to present the case to the jury as a sectional conflict rather than as a cause of action for libel" (R. 944).

Coupled with all of these violations of basic rights is the fact that the trial proceedings patently denied petitioners due process and equal protection of laws. Clearly, when four Negro ministers are sued by a white City Commissioner for an ad seeking support for Dr. Martin Luther King, and the case is tried in a segregated court room in Montgomery, Alabama, during a Civil War Centennial, before an all-white jury and a trial judge elected at polls from which Negroes were excluded, and when that very Judge states that "white man's justice" governs in his court and permits respondent's counsel to say "Nigger" and "Nigra" to the jury, then the Fourteenth Amendment does indeed become the "pariah" that the Trial Judge below called it. (See n. 20, pp. 26–27, infra; n. 3, p. 3, supra).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Brief for the Petitioners - On Writ Of Certiorari To The Supreme Court Of Alabamabrief For The Petitioners, Questions Presented2, Constitutional And Statutory Provisions Involved