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New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), was a United States Supreme Courtmarker case which established the actual malice standard which has to be met before press reports about public officials or public figures can be considered to be defamation and libel; and hence allowed free reporting of the civil rights campaigns in the southern United States. It is one of the key decisions supporting the freedom of the press. The actual malice standard requires that the plaintiff in a defamation or libel case prove that the publisher of the statement in question knew that the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Because of the extremely high burden of proof on the plaintiff, and the difficulty in proving essentially what is inside a person's head, such cases—when they involve public figures—rarely prevail.

Before this decision there were nearly US$300 million in libel actions outstanding against news organizations from the Southern states and these had caused many publications to exercise great caution when reporting on civil rights, for fear that they might be held accountable for libel. After the New York Times prevailed in this case, news organizations were free to report the widespread disorder and civil rights infringements. 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.

Background of the case

On March 29, 1960, the New York Times carried a full-page advertisement titled "Heed Their Rising Voices", which solicited funds to defend Martin Luther King, Jr. against an Alabamamarker perjury indictment. The advertisement described actions against civil rights protesters, some of them inaccurately, some of which involved the police force of Montgomery, Alabamamarker. Commissioner L. B. Sullivan, whose duties included supervision of the police department, though not named in the advertisement, since he held the position of commissioner, the inaccurate criticism of the actions by the police were considered as defamation against him.

Alabama law denied a public officer recovery of punitive damages in a libel action brought on account of a publication concerning their official conduct unless they first make a written demand for a public retraction and the defendant fails or refuses to comply, so Sullivan sent such a request. The Times did not publish a retraction in response to the demand. Instead it wrote a letter stating, among other things, that "we . . . are somewhat puzzled as to how you think the statements in any way reflect on you," and "you might, if you desire, let us know in what respect you claim that the statements in the advertisement reflect on you". Sullivan didn't respond but instead filed this suit a few days later. He also sued four black ministers mentioned in the ad, specifically Ralph Abernathy, S.S. Seay, Sr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and Joseph Lowery. Sullivan won $500,000 in an Alabama court judgment.

The Times did, however, subsequently publish a retraction of the advertisement upon the demand of Governor John Patterson of Alabama, who asserted that the publication charged him with "grave misconduct and ... improper actions and omissions as Governor of Alabama and Ex-Officio Chairman of the State Board of Education of Alabama." When asked to explain why there had been a retraction for the Governor but not for Sullivan, the Secretary of the Times testified: "We did that because we didn't want anything that was published by The Times to be a reflection on the State of Alabama and the Governor was, as far as we could see, the embodiment of the State of Alabama and the proper representative of the State and, furthermore, we had by that time learned more of the actual facts which the ad purported to recite and, finally, the ad did refer to the action of the State authorities and the Board of Education presumably of which the Governor is the ex-officio chairman...." On the other hand, he testified that he did not think that "any of the language in there referred to Mr. Sullivan."

The Court's decision

The rule of law applied by the Alabama courts was found constitutionally deficient for failure to provide the safeguards for freedom of speech and of the press that are required by the First and Fourteenth Amendment in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct. The decision further held that under the proper safeguards the evidence presented in this case is constitutionally insufficient to support the judgment for Sullivan.

Actual malice

Many people have seen the term actual malice as puzzling, since the standard spelled out in the decision refers to knowledge or reckless lack of investigation, not to malicious intent. This term was not newly invented for this case, but was a term from existing libel law. In many jurisdictions, including Alabama (where the case arose), proof of "actual malice" (actual knowledge of falsity, or reckless disregard for the truth) was required in order for punitive damages to be awarded, or for other increased penalties. Since proof of the writer's malicious intentions is hard to provide, proof that the writer knowingly published a falsehood was generally accepted as proof of malice, under the assumption that only a malicious person would knowingly publish a falsehood. In Hoeppner v. Dunkirk Printing Co., 254 N.Y. 95 (1930), similarly, the court said: "The plaintiff alleges that this criticism of him and of his work was not fair and was not honest; it was published with actual malice, ill will and spite. If he establishes this allegation, he has made out a cause of action. No comment or criticism, otherwise libelous, is fair or just comment on a matter of public interest if it be made through actual ill will and malice." (p. 106)

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court adopted the term "actual malice" and gave it constitutional significance, at the same time defining it in terms of the proof which had previously been usual. To a person ignorant of this history, the term seems to contradict its definition, to find malice where there may well be none, and to ignore cases where malice, in the everyday sense of the term, is present.

International comparisons

The rule that somebody alleging defamation should have to prove untruth, rather than that the defendant should have to prove the truth of a statement stood as a departure from the previous common law. In England, the development was specifically rejected in Derbyshire County Council v. Times Newspapers Ltd and it was also rejected in Canada in Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto. However in Australia, the outcome of the case was followed in Theophanous v. The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd.

Later developments



See also



Notes

  1. New York Times v. Sullivan, United States Supreme Court, March 9, 1964 (376 U.S. 254). http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/comm/free_speech/nytvsullivan.html
  2. Derbyshire County Council v. Times Newspapers Ltd [1993] AC 534
  3. Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto [1995] 2 SCR 1130
  4. Theophanous v. The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd (1994) 182 CLR 104


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