New York Times Company v. Sullivan, case decided in 1964 by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1960, the Times ran a fundraising advertisement signed by civil-rights leaders that criticized, among other things, certain actions of the Montgomery, Ala., police department. Some of the facts in the advertisement were incorrect. Although no names were mentioned, L. B. Sullivan, Montgomery's police commissioner, sued the Times for libel and won $500,000 in an Alabama court. The newspaper appealed. At issue was the protection given press criticism of the official conduct of public officials. In overturning the lower court's ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that First Amendment protection of free speech is not dependent on the truth, popularity, or usefulness of the expressed ideas. The decision held that debate on public issues would be inhibited if public officials could recover for honest error that produced false defamatory statements about their official conduct. The court limited the right of recovery to public officials who could prove actual malice (i.e., that the newspaper knew the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of the truth). 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.
See A. Lewis, Make No Law (1991).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.