CASE: NEW YORK TIMES V. SULLIVAN One of the landmark cases of free speech in the United States…


One of the landmark cases of free speech in the United States was the New York Times v. Sullivan case. In March 1960, the state of Alabama was prosecuting Martin Luther King Jr. for tax evasion and perjury in a state court. Two organizations, The Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, purchased a full-page advertisement in the New York Times seeking donations for the defense of Dr. King. The advertisement included an endorsement from many famous people, including celebrities like Jackie Robinson, Marlon Brando, and Nat King Cole, as well as prominent political figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt and John L. Lewis. Additionally, there were endorsements from four well-known African American preachers: Ralph Abernathy, S.S. Seay Sr., Joseph Lowry, and Fred Shulttlesworth.

The advertisement alleged that southern officials were violating the Constitution by arresting Dr. King (as well as protestors) without proper cause and by prosecuting Dr. King for trumped up charges. Although no southern official was identified by name or by explicit office, one official, Mr. L. B. Sullivan, who was a commissioner for the city of Montgomery, sued the New York Times for libel. His argument was that he, as a southern official, had been unjustly defamed by the advertisement.

In fact, the advertisement contained some false statements. There were several errors of relatively minor imprecision or inaccuracy. For example, the advertisement mentioned that Dr. King had been arrested seven times, whereas the correct figure was four. Similarly, the advertisement claimed that the police had “ringed the campus.” Actually, although there was a substantial police presence on and near the campus, police did not actually ring it. There were also two statements of greater consequence that were not true. The advertisement claimed that students had been arrested for singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” an allegation that proved to be untrue. The ad also claimed that the dining hall had been padlocked in order to “starve the students into submission.” That too was untrue.

The prominent African American preachers, whose names had appeared on the advertisement, were also sued. Each of the four denied knowledge of the advertisement prior to its appearance—implying that their names had been used without their permission.

The Alabama courts ruled in favor of Sullivan and awarded one half million dollars to him. It is likely that if the ruling had been upheld by the United States Supreme Court, the New York Times would have gone out of business. Other Alabama officials were also planning to sue and it is likely that the total judgments against the New York Times would have been more than enough to drive the paper into bankruptcy. The Supreme Court, however, overruled the judgment of the Alabama Supreme Court and decided in favor of the New York Times. In addition, the decision effectively prevented the State of Alabama from retrying the case.

All nine justices of the court favored overturning the Alabama court from the beginning, but they favored it on the narrow legal grounds that the libel had not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Had the United State Supreme Court overturned the Alabama Supreme Court on that basis, without deciding the constitutionality of the case, Alabama could have retried the case, and with additional evidence, won the judgment. Supreme Court Justice William Brennen wrote eight different drafts of the decision in an effort to arrive at a decision about the constitutionality of the case that would be acceptable to the entire court. Judge Brennan’s final opinion went far beyond the original narrow legal grounds initially favored by the court and effectively prevented Alabama from retrying the case. In addition to ruling that the case of libel against the New York Times had not been proven, the court also rejected Alabama’s assertions concerning the inapplicability of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Let’s examine Alabama’s two major assertions. First, the state argued that the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply because it was directed at state action and not at the action of private parties. The court ruled decisively against that point, as follows:

That proposition has no application to this case. Although this is a civil lawsuit between private parties, the Alabama courts have applied a state rule of law which petitioners claim to impose invalid restrictions on their constitutional freedoms of speech and press. It matters not that that law has been applied in a civil action and that it is common law only, though supplemented by statute. (Legal Information Institute, Brennan)

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