New York Times v. Sullivan (1964)

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New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) is a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that First Amendment freedom of speech protections limit the ability of public officials to sue for defamation. The case emerged out of a dispute over a full-page advertisement run by supporters of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in The New York Times in 1960. The advertisement described civil rights protests in Montgomery, Alabama, lauded Dr. King’s leadership, and criticized various Southern officials for violating the rights of African Americans. The advertisement contained several factual inaccuracies which became the basis for a suit for defamation by a Montgomery police commissioner. After a jury trial that found in favor of the plaintiff and a denial for the defendants’ motion for a new trial, the Supreme Court of Alabama sustained the holding on appeal, stating that “[t]he First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not protect libelous publications.”

The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice William Brennan, reviewed the matter “against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” Noting that the advertisement at hand would qualify for constitutional protection, the Court considered whether its inaccuracies had forfeited that constitutional protection. The Court, in a unanimous 9-0 decision, established that statements under such circumstances involving a public official plaintiff must be false and made with “actual malice,” that is, “with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Upending the common law tort rule, the Court placed the burden of proof on the public official plaintiff, stating that the plaintiff must demonstrate actual malice with “convincing clarity which the constitutional standard demands.”

The Court argued that that the common-law standard would result in a “rule compelling the critic of official conduct to guarantee the truth of all his factual assertions and to do so on pain of libel judgments virtually unlimited in amount leads to … self censorship.” Instead, the Court put into place a more rigorous standard necessary for sustaining the “maintenance of the opportunity for free political discussion,” a “fundamental principle of our constitutional system” that is “essential to the security of the Republic.”

To see the text of the Supreme Court case, click here, and for more information, click here for a North Carolina Law Review Article on the case.

[Last updated in March of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]