Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)

The tort of defamation of a person's reputation occurs through two forms - libel and slander. A tort is defined as a wrongful or illegal act other than a breach of contract that injures another. Libel is a false and unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, effigy, or another representation to the eye which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy; libel may cause him/her to be shunned or avoided or may injure him in his occupation. Slander is the equivalent form, but through oral or verbal means. A committed tort may be remedied, and relief may be obtained. Whether defamation does occur over certain modes of communications (ie: television and radio), and should be consider libel or slander has been the subject of continuing debate.

Traditionally, torts of slander and libel were subject to strict liability: the perpetrator was accountable for deliberate lies, reckless falsehoods, and for inadvertent non-negligent ones as well. Prior to the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case in 1964, once it could be proved that the actor had 'published' a statement about the plaintiff, and that the statement was defamatory, the actor was subject to liability unless he could prove the truth of the statement or establish that he was permitted to utter the statement on that occasion.

This ability to impose liability on the "publisher" of false statements, regardless of the publisher's state of mind or degree of care, eventually led to a collision between the traditional law of defamation and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The collision occurred in 1964 with New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

In 1960, the New York Times ran a fund-raising advertisement signed by civil rights leaders that criticized, among other things, certain actions of the Montgomery, Alabama, police department. Some of the facts in the advertisement were unknowingly incorrect. No names were mentioned in the advertisement, but L. B. Sullivan, the Montgomery police commissioner, sued the Times for libel and won $500,000 in an Alabama court. The newspaper company appealed. What was at issue was the question of whether or not the official conduct of public officials could be protected from criticism and whether or not public officials could always recover compensation as a result of such commentary.

When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, it overturned the lower court's ruling, declaring that the First Amendment's protection of free speech is not dependent on the usefulness, truth or popularity of expressed ideas. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment "prohibits a public official from recovering 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 as to whether it was true or not." The court ruled for the first time that the First Amendment covers libelous statements and that public officials may not win damages for defamatory statements regarding their official conduct unless they can prove actual "malice."

The trial entered an animated arena during the civil rights movement and thus, concern developed that southern juries might impose significant verdicts against national news organizations for trivial inaccuracies in news reports. If the Supreme Court were to suppress the Times' appeal, there was concern that civil litigations by public officials in the south would therefore create significant financial discouragement to report on civil rights activities. When the Supreme Court did rule, they asserted that debate on public issues would be inhibited if public officials could recover for honest error that produced incorrect defamatory statements about their social and administrative conduct. The court limited the right of mitigative recovery to one who could prove purposeful malice in the expression of ideas (in this case, that the newspaper knew the statement was false or that they acted in reckless disregard of the truth). In addition, the Court held that the First Amendment requires that the plaintiff prove actual malice "with convincing clarity."

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.

Since the decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the specifics and details of the law of defamation have been shaped by a series of opinions from the United States Supreme Court. Countless decisions by lower federal courts and state courts also addressed the "actual malice" requirements of the First Amendment, further defining the requirements to award damages and mete out punishment. For example, in St. Amant v. Thompson, (1968), the Court explained that "reckless disregard," as used in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, means more than just a failure to check the accuracy of a news story. More specifically, there "must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as the truth of his publication." Another case, Curtis Publ. Co. v. Butts, (1967) ruled that the "actual malice" standard extended beyond "public officials" to "public figures."


The Full Supreme Court Opinion

Back to Landmark Cases Index

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard