New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), was a United States Supreme Court case that established the “actual malice” standard for cases of defamation brought by public officials or public figures. It is a key decision enhancing freedom of the press. The actual malice standard requires the plaintiff in a defamation or libel case prove that the publisher of the statement in question knew that the defamatory statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Because of the extremely high burden of proof on the plaintiff, such cases — when they involve public figures — rarely prevail.
Taylor Branch, writing in Parting the Waters, explains the circumstances that led to the Supreme Court case. In 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested on income tax charges in Alabama following a new wave of lunch-counter sit-ins. In New York, the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South bought a full-page ad in The New York Times that ran on March 29. The ad, according to Branch, “followed capsule descriptions of official reactions against the sit-ins with a brief history of the efforts to prosecute and intimidate King.” The ad maintained that King’s perjury indictment was part of a Southern strategy “to behead this affirmative movement, and thus to demoralize Negro Americans and weaken their will to struggle.”
Montgomery, Alabama Police Commissioner Sullivan demanded a retraction, and when he did not get a satisfactory response, he filed a libel action against the newspaper and four ministers listed on the ad as endorsing it. Sullivan claimed that the allegations against the Montgomery police defamed him personally. Under Alabama law, Sullivan did not have to prove that he had been harmed; and a defense claiming that the ad was truthful was unavailable since the ad contained factual errors. Sullivan won a $500,000 judgment.
The Times maintained that the case against it was brought to intimidate news organizations and prevent them from reporting illegal actions of public employees in the South as they attempted to continue to support segregation.
The Sullivan case put the Court in a delicate political situation. Branch observed:
“Eventually, the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court avoided the racial content of the facts by inventing a new standard of law. To do so, they redefined the legal concept of defamation in a case that mentioned no names, and based the standard of allowable news reporting on a paid advertisement that was touched by no reporter and never passed through a newsroom.”
According to Lawrence Tribe in American Constitutional Law, the Supreme Court took as its premise “the central meaning of the First Amendment” found by previous rulings to be a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open….”
Justice William Brennan, writing for a unanimous Court, ruled against Sullivan, holding that “[a] State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for 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.“ Or, as the Court said in 1941, “[I]t is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions.” Tribe avers, “Implicit in this rule is the proposition that the first amendment establishes a right to speak defamatory truth….”
The Court also concluded that a public official bringing a libel suit must establish that the defamatory statement was directed at the official personally, and not simply at a government unit. In addition, it held that all defamation claims of aggrieved public officials must be examined closely to forestall what would otherwise be a back door to official censorship.
Subsequent cases have limited the scope of the Sullivan decision to actions by public officials for defamation regarding their official actions. A more relaxed standard of proof applies to actions by private persons.