On this day in 1964, one of the Supreme Court’s most significant First Amendment cases, New York Times v. Sullivan, was argued.
The case began on March 29, 1960, when a group of civil rights activists ran a full-page fundraising advertisement in the New York Times. Martin Luther King Jr. was facing a trial in Alabama court on charges of tax evasion and perjury, and the advertisement solicited donations to help fund his legal defense. Titled “Heed Their Rising Voices,” the advertisement accused Alabama of prosecuting King in retribution for his civil rights activism. “Their strategy is to behead this affirmative movement and thus to demoralize Negro Americans and weaken their will to struggle,” it declared.
The advertisement also included descriptions of white southern officials repressing the student lunch counter sit-in movement that was then spreading across the South. Among the accusations was that, following a civil rights protest in Montgomery, “truckloads of police armed with shotguns and tear-gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus” and then the students’ “dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission.”
Although never mentioned by name, Montgomery city commissioner L.B. Sullivan filed a libel suit against the New York Times and four black Alabama ministers whose names were among those listed as signatories to the advertisement. Sullivan argued the advertisement defamed his reputation and that various factual errors in the advertisement—the police never surrounded the campus or padlocked the dining hall, for example—prevented the defendants from claiming truth as their defense. Sullivan won a $500,000 judgment at trial, which the Alabama Supreme Court subsequently upheld.
At the Supreme Court, Montgomery attorney M. Roland Nachman Jr. represented Sullivan. Nachman highlighted the numerous vague referents in the advertisement, many of which, he insisted, could have been understood to be pointing toward Sullivan as responsible for oppressive acts that had not actually taken place. He also noted that the newspaper had neglected to follow its own advertising vetting standards. Furthermore, Nachman argued that no court had ever made a distinction between libel of a private person and libel of a public official—which was basically what the Times was demanding.
Columbia law professor Herbert Wechsler represented the New York Times. He insisted that nothing in the ad necessarily pointed to Sullivan as being responsible for the police department’s actions, that the instructions given to the jury were too vague, and that the First Amendment required the press be protected against suits such as this, which was intended to silence political criticism.
On March 9, 1964, the Supreme Court ruled, 9-0, in favor of the New York Times. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Brennan wrote that 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 whether it was false or not.” This was the first time that the Court invoked the First Amendment to check libel actions.
“Another milestone in the long fight for freedom of the press and freedom of speech has been set up by a unanimous decision of the United States Supreme Court,” praised the Chicago Tribune editorial board, which was generally critical of the Warren Court’s doctrinal innovations. “The effect of the decision is to reaffirm the constitutional right of every citizen to criticize the government and officials of government.”