Celebrating 60 Years of Free Speech Thanks to This One Pivotal Supreme Court Case

This month, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of one of the most important Supreme Court cases – New York Times v. Sullivan – that significantly shaped free speech protections for the press and the public at large. In March of 1964, the Supreme Court in Sullivan, set a higher bar for public officials to meet in bringing a libel claim, thereby providing important First Amendment protections for free speech. Despite this being a watershed case for free speech, few outside of the press world, or those ingrained in First Amendment jurisprudence, know the facts of the case or why it remains so important to everyday life – 60 years on. The News/Media Alliance is committed to sharing the significance of this case with the public, and highlighting why we must prioritize protecting it.

What was the case NYT v. Sullivan about?
In 1960, civil rights activists placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times that criticized the police department in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, for its treatment of civil rights activists, including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., protesting the Jim Crow laws. While most of the references in the ad were accurate, some statements were not entirely accurate – including how many times Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested, and a statement that the doors of a state college campus had been “padlocked” by police to repress protestors. While no police officer was specifically named, the Commissioner of the City of Montgomery, L.B. Sullivan, took offense and filed a libel suit against four preachers whose names appeared in the advertisement as well as The Times, claiming the use of the word “police” implicated and defamed him.

Under Alabama law at the time, Sullivan only needed to prove that there were mistakes in the advertisement that likely harmed his reputation. An Alabama court ruled in favor of Sullivan, finding that the advertisement had damaged his reputation, and a jury awarded a whopping $500,000 in damages (which would be equivalent to over $5 million today!). After the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the judgment, The Times took the case to the United States Supreme Court arguing it should be protected under the First Amendment.

What did the Supreme Court decide?
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously for The Times and the preachers and dismissed the damage award, finding that Alabama’s libel laws were inadequate in their protection of the freedom of speech and the press. Importantly, the Court found that because the publication included speech criticizing public officials on a matter of public interest, a heightened standard of “action malice” must be applied when determining liability for defamation. The Court defined “actual malice” as publishing a statement “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not”. Applying this new test to The Times, the Court declared there was insufficient evidence of actual malice.

Why is this ruling still so important?
At the time, the Supreme Court’s decision likely saved The Times, and many other newspapers, from an onslaught of lawsuits with potentially crippling damages verdicts, and significantly fostered the civil rights movement in allowing vigorous public debate and criticism of government officials to occur. However, beyond the immediate and short-term impacts this ruling had, the principles born out of that decision and which future cases built upon, have continued to provide immeasurable benefit to society.

The Supreme Court, in establishing the “actual malice” standard, has allowed public debate over government officials and action to foster over the last six decades, helping promote accountability and transparency. Without Sullivan, journalists would be at risk of facing insurmountable libel lawsuits brought over every innocent or careless error, threatening the very existence of the free press. Sullivan protects us all – not just journalists and activists. You, as a citizen, are free to speak out against your county board, or criticize your elected officials on social media, even if that criticism includes unintended mistakes, without fear that you’ll have to prove it in court.

And while there may be some, including at least one current Supreme Court Justice, who may wish to water down the protections under Sullivan, the precedent still enjoys widespread bipartisan support across the legislature and judiciary in recognition of its benefit to all. This free speech protection, which so many countries do not afford their citizens, is one of the most important underpinnings of American democracy. The News/Media Alliance is proud to commemorate the 60th anniversary of New York Times v. Sullivan.


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