New York Times v. Sullivan – (Defamation)
- A Civil Rights Organization took out a Full-Page Advertisement in the New York Times in 1960.
- The advertisement talked about a “wave of terror” engaged in by civil rights opponents.
- The advertisement accused the Alabama Police of terrorizing student protesters.
- The advertisement said the Alabama Police padlocked the student dining hall in an attempt to starve them into submission.
- There were multiple factual inaccuracies in the advertisement:
- The Alabama Police did not padlock the student dining hall.
- Other False Statements.
- Other Exaggerated Statements.
- L.B. Sullivan was offended by the advertisement.
- L.B. Sullivan served as the Montgomery Commissioner of Public Affairs.
- It was Sullivan’s opinion that the advertisement harmed his reputation given that it was his responsibility to supervise the police department.
- Sullivan sued for libel (defamatory speech published in writing) in the Alabama State Court.
- Trial Judge determined the advertisement to be “libelous per se”.
- Because it was was “libelous per se”, Sullivan did not have to show actual harm to be awarded damages.
- The Jury ruled in favor of the Plaintiff and granted Sullivan a Judgment.
- The Judge ordered the New York Times to pay Sullivan $500,000 in damages.
- The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the Trial Court Judgment and rejected the argument that the New York Times was protected by the First Amendment.
- The U.S. Supreme Court grated the New York Times Certiorari on it’s appeal.
Issue: Is the First Amendment inclusive of the recognition of the natural right for a Public Official to bring a Defamation Action based on False Statements with regards to a public issue?
Conclusion: The Court Unanimously held that a State cannot, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves “actual malice”. Actual Malice means that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false. This is based on the First Amendment which applies to Alabama via the 14th Amendment. Brennan: “The threat of the cost of an impending potential lawsuit can hamper free speech just as much as would a criminal prosecution”. The Court Reversed the Judgment of the Alabama Supreme Court.
Rule: Justice Brennan Opining for the Majority: Public Debates may feature “vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials”. Public Debates may even include False Information. The First Amendment allows for all kinds of speech, even if it is untruthful and antagonistic. A Public Official can prevail in a libel/defamation lawsuit if they can prove the statement was made with “Actual Malice”. To prove actual malice the plaintiff must show that the defendant knew the statement to be false or otherwise acted with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of the statement.
Rule Proof: Justice Brennan Opining for the Majority: “Case precedents establish a firm commitment to robust, uninhibited debate on public opinion.” The trend in American Jurisprudence is to value free speech so greatly that the law shows a deference to free discussion over factual accuracy.
Application to these Facts: Brennan Concluded: The New York Times did not know that the advertisement contained inaccuracies. The New York Times had therefore not acted maliciously against Sullivan and was not then to be held liable for defamation.
Concurring Opinion 1: Justice Black and Justice Douglas: Concurred that the Press was protected from defamation claims brought by public officials. Dissented in Part by opining that the Press should be protected from defamation claims brought by public officials even if the press does in fact act in actual malice, making their First Amendment Right Absolute and Unconditional.
Concurring Opinion 2: Justice Goldberg and and Justice Douglas: Concurred in the Judgment, but reasoned that the Press had an Absolute First Amendment Privilege even when making their criticisms with actual malice.
Application and Influence of Counterargument/Conclusion in Law System: Leaves some influential reasoning for the arguments that the standard of actual malice is not necessarily the only logical view of lawsuits brought against the press by public officials for defamation.