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New York Times Company v. Sullivan: 1964

Supreme Court Protects The Press, Suggestions For Further Reading

Appellant: The New York Times Company
Appellee: L.B. Sullivan
Appellant Claims: That the Supreme Court of Alabama's affirmation of a libel judgment against the Times violated the free speech and due process rights as defined by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution and certain Supreme Court decisions; also, that an advertisement published in the Times was not libelous and the Supreme Court should reverse the decision of the Alabama trial court.
Chief Defense Lawyers: Sam Rice Baker, M. Roland Nachman, Jr., and Robert E. Steiner Ill
Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Herbert Brownell, Thomas F. Daly, and Herbert Wechsler
Justices: Hugo L. Black, William J. Brennan, Jr., Tom C. Clark, William 0. Douglas, Arthur J. Goldberg, John M. Harlan, Potter Stewart, Earl Warren, and Byron R. White
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: March 9, 1964
Decision: The Alabama courts' decisions were reversed.

SIGNIFICANCE: The U.S. Supreme Court limited for the first time states' authority to award libel damages based on individual state laws and defined "actual malice" as a national standard for determining libel cases involving public figures.

On March 23, 1960, an organization calling itself the "Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South" paid the New York Times to publish a certain advertisement. The ad took up one full page and was a call for public support and money to defend Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights struggle in the South. Bearing the caption "Heed Their Rising Voices" in large, bold print, the ad was published in the March 29, 1960, edition of the Times.

The ad criticized several Southern jurisdictions, including the city of Montgomery, Alabama, for breaking up various civil rights demonstrations. No individual was mentioned by name. Further, the ad declared that "Southern violators of the Constitution" were determined to destroy King and his movement. The reference was to the entire South, not just Montgomery and other localities, and again no individual was mentioned by name.

Over 600,000 copies of the March 29, 1960, Times edition carrying the ad were printed. Only a couple hundred went to Alabama subscribers. Montgomery City Commissioner L.B. Sullivan learned of the ad through an editorial in a local newspaper. Incensed, on April 19, 1960, Sullivan sued the Times for libel in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, Alabama. Sullivan claimed that the ad's reference to Montgomery and to "Southern violators of the Constitution" had the effect of defaming him, and he demanded $500,000 in compensation.

On November 3, 1960, the Circuit Court found the Times guilty and awarded Sullivan the full $500,000 in damages. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the Circuit Court judgment on August 30, 1962. In its opinion, the Alabama Supreme Court gave an extremely broad definition of libel:

Where the words published tend to injure a person libeled by them in his reputation, profession, trade or business, or charge him with an indictable offense, or tends to bring the individual into public contempt [they] are libelous per se.… We hold that the matter complained of [by Sullivan] is, under the above doctrine, libelous per se.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972