On March 9, 1964, a unanimous Supreme Court reversed a libel verdict against The New York Times in a case brought by Alabama officials who complained about a civil rights advertisement in the paper. The First Amendment, thankfully, hasn’t been the same since.
A young woman gets is hosed by firemen as an anti-segregation march is broken up in Birmingham, Ala. on May 8, 1963. (AP)
Every person who writes online or otherwise about public officials, every hack or poet who criticizes the work of government, every distinguished journalist or pajama-ed blogger who speaks truth to power, ought to bow his or her head today in a silent moment of gratitude for a single United States Supreme Court decision issued 50 years ago today. It means simply that you can make an honest mistake when writing about a public figure and won’t likely get sued.*
New York Times v. Sullivan, decided unanimously by the Court on March 9, 1964, in a decision written by Justice William Brennan, finally gave national force to the lofty words of the First Amendment, that there should be “no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Without that ruling, and the precedent it has generated since (despite the efforts of Justice Antonin Scalia), investigative and opinion journalism as we know it today would not exist.
Much of the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the ruling, such as there has been, has focused logically upon its impact upon modern First Amendment law. But it is important to remember today that the case arose in the heat of the civil rights movement and that state libel laws, like the Alabama statute that the Court struck down, were routinely used as weapons by local officials to scare journalists away from covering the worst government excesses of that period.
It’s also important to remember that until Sullivan, the First Amendment had traditionally been interpreted very narrowly. So narrowly, in fact, that the concept of libel was widely thought to be beyond constitutional purview. Let me put it this way (and I’m not the first to suggest this): If there were no Sullivan, there likely would not have been a release of the Pentagon Papers or a rigorous investigation into Watergate or much of any withering criticism of government that appears today in any medium.
The story began in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 29, 1960, when a political advertisement appeared in The Times titled “Heed Their Rising Voices” criticizing Southern officials for their aggressive response to civil rights protests. The advertisement, signed at the bottom by civil rights leaders and others, was inaccurate in a few minor respects but it incriminated no Southern official by name. It appeared only once in the paper and it cost less than $5,000 to publish.
This did not deter L.B. Sullivan, the Montgomery Public Safety Commissioner at the time of the ad. First he asked the Times to make a public retraction to him. The paper did not. Then he sued the Times (and four black ministers who had undersigned it) under Alabama’s broad libel law, arguing that they had defamed him and could not, because of the errors in the advertisement, successfully assert “truth” as a defense to the charge.
The state trial judge in the case was an unreconstructed Confederate and a Southern jury quickly came back with a $500,000 judgment against the defendantsa significant amount today that was even more significant then. The paper appealed the ruling to the Alabama Supreme Court, which in affirming the trial court ruling made the state’s libel law, and thus the media’s potential exposure, even broader still.
The trial judge had told jurors that the advertisement was libelous per sethat it was presumed to be libelous in other words. And both the trial judge and the state supreme court justices expanded the definition of the “malice” required in libel law to include, for example, “irresponsibility.” The Alabama courts even implied that most any government official could sue for libel even if the public criticism was only directed at his or her office: “libel on government,” it is called.
Today Is the 50th Anniversary of the (Re-)Birth of the First Amendment