Nov 19, 2020 in Politics

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan Case (1964)

People, who are far away from studying law, vaguely imagine how decisions in different cases are taken. Very often almost every case has a precedent to familiarize with. But if the case is unique, sometimes it is not enough to look about existing laws. New laws appear, and new decisions, which may influence both further local cases and the history as a whole, are taken.

In March 1960, in the New York Times, a paid full-size ad titled Heed Their Rising Voices appeared which concerned the impairment of rights of African Americans in the South. The ad was signed by activists of the Committee for Protection of Martin Luther King and struggle for freedom in the South: by Afro-American priests; cultural figures, such as Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando and others; the widow of the U.S. President Eleanor Roosevelt, and by other public figures of the time in the United States. The ad was also claiming that the police directed their forces against students who participated in the civil rights movement for giving Afro-Americans an opportunity to study at universities on a par with them. Respondent L. B. Sullivan, who was a commissioner at Montgomery police department, claimed that this ad offended him personally because he exercised supervision over the police department. Under the Alabama law he did not have to prove the way he had been harmed and the extent of harm. Several occasional witnesses said that the ad sounded like a true story and gave wrong impression about this person. And so far the ad had factual errors it could not have been proved to be truthful. Sullivan estimated his moral damage at 1 000 000 USD (Dudley, 2007).


Publication of the paid political ads was and still is quite a common phenomenon for the American press. Actually, with publication of this add the newspaper has received $ 4.5 million dollars. However, the Courts decision was that the paid political ad is a vehicle, which realizes the right for liberty of speech and even so far as it was a libel, it had no precedent for malice and therefore no amendment was proposed for Mr. Sullivan. Also, as the official, he was supposed to have stronger arguments than other people for the guilt of the accused in Court.

As it was stated in New York Times Co v. Sullivan (2013), the conclusion was that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are made with actual malice (with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity) (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 2013).

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Therefore Supreme Court of the United States reached a verdict in favor of the newspaper. As a result of the courts decision, new principles of relations between authorities and mass media were formulated. In brief, Supreme Court justified the rule, according to which the officials cannot demand compensation for damage caused by false or defamatory statements, unless they can prove deliberate intent or gross negligence of their distributors. The court enunciated the concept of actual malice, or malice mounted on the factual circumstances of the case. In cases which concern the interests of public figures, it is their burden to prove the fact of actual malice.

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One way or another, by emphasizing that First Amendment protection applies to state court cases, the decision eased the way for news organizations covering the civil-rights movement in the South (Lewis, 1991). Thus, after the final judgment in the case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the precedent was established, according to which it became almost impossible for an official or politician in the USA to win a defamation case. It is believed that this double standard served the interests of society in general, since otherwise the media would be crushed by the claims of libel. Therefore a public official may not recover damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with actual malice, that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of the truth (Goodwin, 1998). It was confirmed in 1982 in the case Westmoreland v. Columbia Broadcasting System, when retired General Westmoreland, the former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, tried to sue Federal court in the southern district of New York claiming against the CBS with demand to pay $ 120 million for his moral damages for libel. The precedent with the case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan helped journalists to defend their right for independent statements (Schneir, 1987).

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The condition of actual malice was also applied in the case of famous actress and comedian Carol Burnett, who sued the Enquirer magazine for libel. Another precedent for the actual malice case took place in 1991, when the Court had to decide how far a journalist can go in his/her handling being under protection of the First Amendment. As was defined by Downs, Janet Malcolm presented the words of a psychiatrist in a manner that came laden with a bit of libel. The district court delivered a judgment in favor of The New Yorker, however, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy refused to turn the blind eye to journalistic irresponsibility (Downs, 2005).

The decision on this case influenced the visionary statement of defamed rights, however, the opinion about its expediency might be ambiguous. From one angle, it gives more protection to the press; but from another, the press feels free to write whatever it wants in most refined expressions. Consequently, the decision taken in case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan influenced the further development of press in the USA, the governments of European countries and other decisions taken by the European Court of Justice many years later.


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