New York Times Co. V. Sullivan

By:- Varshini R

Name of the caseNew York Times Co. v. Sullivan
Citation376 U.S 254,(1964)
Date of the case9th  March 1964
PetitionerNew York Times
Judges Lord Earl Warren. J
Statutes involvedU.S. Constitution
Important amendmentsI and XIV Amendments


In most of the countries the defamation is the main subject matters which steps till the court halls. Many of the people will fail to analyse the word which they use whether in written form or by verbal form. Many of such words will take a form of defamatory statements on the other person and the default person will be held liable for it. In the case which is analyzed here acts as the landmark decision with regards to defamation; especially, a libel.


Prior to the landmark 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, defamation (libel and slander) was considered a matter of state law. Courts assumed that the Constitution wouldn’t protect defamatory publications, and state laws did not require plaintiffs in defamation cases to show that defendants had published the defamatory statements with any form of fault. In New York Times v. Sullivan itself, trivial inaccuracies in an editorial advertisement calling for support of Dr. Martin Luther King and the growing civil rights movement led to an outsize defamation verdict of $500,000.

The plaintiff, who had not even been specifically named in the advertisement and whose reputation was likely burnished rather than tarnished in much of his community by the ad, was making a political point attempting to shut down out-of-state criticism of Southern violence against African-Americans attempting to assert civil rights. Indeed, as Anthony Lewis documented in his book Make No Law, the case against the Times was part of a concerted effort to silence the press with respect to the civil rights struggle. By the time Sullivan was decided, the New York Times and other press outlets were facing $300 million in potential liability in defamation actions brought by Southern officials.  Liability of this magnitude would have bankrupted the New York Times and other press entities.

Background of the case

New York Times, and established the “actual malice” standard to provide protection for erroneous statements made in the public interest. The New York Times had published an advertisement created by supporters of Dr. Martin Luther King that included some inaccuracies and was critical of the Montgomery, Alabama police. Sullivan, a Montgomery city commissioner, sued the Times for defamation on the basis that as a supervisor of the police, statements in the ad were personally defamatory.

Finding that Alabama’s libel laws did not provide sufficient protection for freedom of the press, the Court extended constitutional protections to alleged libel by invoking the First and Fourteenth Amendments to prohibit elected officials from recovering damages for false statements made regarding their official conduct, unless they were made with “actual malice.”  “Actual malice” created a different fault standard than ill-will, and required a plaintiff to prove with clear and convincing evidence that false or inaccurate statements were made with knowledge of its falsity, or with a reckless disregard for the truth.

Facts of the case

The Petitioner newspaper published a full-page ad that alleged the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (King) arrest for perjury in Alabama was part of a campaign to destroy King’s efforts to integrate public facilities and encourage blacks to vote. The Respondent, the Montgomery city commissioner, filed a libel action against the newspaper and four black ministers who were listed as endorsers of the advertisement. The Respondent claimed that the allegations against the Montgomery police defamed him personally.

The advertisement included statements, some of which were false, about police action allegedly directed against students who participated in a civil rights demonstration and against a leader of the civil rights movement. The Respondent claimed the statements referred to him because his duties included supervision of the police department. Under Alabama law, the Respondent did not have to prove that he had been harmed. Also, a defense claiming that the advertisement was truthful was unavailable since the advertisement contained factual errors. The jury found for the Respondent, awarding a $500,000 judgment. The State Supreme Court affirmed.

Issues raised

  • Did Alabama’s libel law, not requiring the Respondent to prove that the speech in question was motivated by actual malice?
  • Did Alabama’s libel law unconstitutionally infringe on the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and freedom of press protections?

Arguments of the petitioner

  • Freedom of speech is the right and ability of the people.
  • Respondents have failed to manage the sufficient to necessary normal elements to prove that defamation was committed against them.

Arguments of the respondents

  • The L.B. Sullivan who was the city safety commissioner argues that the criticisms of his subordinates reflected on him even though he was not mentioned in the advertisement.
  • The New York company has to react publicly for deframing the image of the public figure and to fix up the punitive damages in a liable action.

Related provisions

  • In libel law, “malice” means the knowledge or the gross recklessness more than intent. In this case, the court found that someone would knowingly disseminate false information without bad intent.
  • Actual malic – in the law of the united states; it is a legal requirement imposed upon a person or an official when they file a suit for the defamatory written statement that is libel. It is the legal standard established by law to determine when public officials or public figures may recover damages in the lawsuit.
  • First Amendment, amendment (1791) to the Constitution of the United States that is part of the Bill of Rights and reads, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The clauses of the amendment are often called the establishment clause, the free exercise clause, the free speech clause, the free press clause, the assembly clause, and the petition clause.
  • Fourteenth Amendment, amendment (1868) to the Constitution of the United States that granted citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to African Americans and slaves who had been emancipated after the American Civil War, including them under the umbrella phrase “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” In all, the amendment comprises five sections, four of which began in 1866 as separate proposals that stalled in the legislative process and were later amalgamated, along with a fifth enforcement section, into a single amendment.


The Supreme Court of the United States held that Alabama’s libel laws were wholly inadequate in terms of providing newspapers with the constitutional freedoms of speech and the press. Thus, because the very laws under which the New York Times was held civilly liable were invalid, the high court held that the entire matter must be remanded in accordance with the United States Constitution.

The court first quickly dispensed with two issues that were dismissed as inapplicable by the Alabama courts. First, the Fourteenth Amendment does apply to private actions, not just actions taken by the state or local government. Thus, the New York Times was entitled to protection under that amendment. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the stricter scrutiny applied to “commercial” speech did not apply to this matter; instead, because the advertisement conveyed political grievances of the highest public interest, it was entitled to the full protection offered by the constitutional freedoms of speech and the press.

The court noted, somewhat philosophically, that while speech criticizing the government may be “caustic” or offensive, the public interest in protecting that form of speech greatly outweighed an occasional “erroneous” statement about a public official. Instead, the court held that the standard that must be applied by courts when publications make statements about public or government officials is not merely to determine whether or not the statement is false. Instead, the public official claiming defamation must prove that the publication set forth the statements with “actual malice.” The Supreme Court defined actual malice as publishing the statement knowing that the information was false or recklessly disregarding whether it was false or not. If the plaintiff is unable to prove such actual malice, then the publication retains its privilege under freedom of speech and cannot be held for damages as a result of libel or slander.

The key problem with Alabama’s laws is that they did not require a showing of actual malice in order for a public official to recover damages against a national newspaper. On remand, the trial court must instruct the jury on the definition of actual malice and not award damages unless actual malice can be shown.

A State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves “actual malice” — that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.

(a) Application by state courts of a rule of law, whether statutory or not, to award a judgment in a civil action, is “state action” under the Fourteenth Amendment.

(b) Expression does not lose constitutional protection to which it would otherwise be entitled because it appears in the form of a paid advertisement.

(c) Factual error, content defamatory of official reputation, or both, are insufficient to warrant an award of damages for false statements unless “actual malice” — knowledge that statements are false or in reckless disregard of the truth — is alleged and proved.

(d) State court judgment entered upon a general verdict which does not differentiate between punitive damages, as to which, under state law, actual malice must be proved, and general damages, as to which it is “presumed,” precludes any determination as to the basis of the verdict, and requires reversal, where the presumption of malice is inconsistent with federal constitutional requirements.

(e) The evidence was constitutionally insufficient to support the judgment for respondent since it failed to support a finding that the statements were made with actual malice or that they related to respondent.

Concepts highlighted

Civil rights, guarantees of equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law, regardless of race, religion, or other personal characteristics. Defamation, in law, attacking another’s reputation by a false publication (communication to a third party) tending to bring the person into disrepute. The concept is an elusive one and is limited in its varieties only by human inventiveness. An act of 1881, which inaugurated modern French defamation law, required conspicuous retraction of libellous material in newspapers and allowed truth as a defence only when publications concerned public figures. Modern German defamation is similar but generally allows truth as a defence. In Italy, truth seldom excuses defamation, which is criminally punishable there.


The decision was a major First Amendment victory; yet, in less than two decades, there was criticism from opposite sides. Some critics said the ruling made it too hard for individuals to undo damage to their reputations because it was difficult to prove actual malice. Other critics said the media were too exposed to the high cost of defending against lawsuits and appealing jury awards and too vulnerable to the intrusion on the newsgathering process caused by pretrial depositions and document discovery.

New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in 1983 that “it is not just judgments that worry publishers and reporters and others concerned with freedom of expression. It is the cost of defending libel actions: the cost not only in money but in time and in the psychological burden on editors and reporters.” This criticism by the media of the impact of New York Times v. Sullivan has quieted in recent years. Over time, the federal appeals courts proved a reliable check on jury verdicts that seemed designed to punish the media without really satisfying the actual malice standard.

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