New York Times VERSUS. Sullivan

New York Times V. Sullivan


In the 60s, when segregation and racism ruled the south, efforts where put forth to abolish that way of life.  The Civil Right Movement brought about the voices of change.  African Americans were not going to put up with unfair laws and fought for equal rights.  Marches, protesting, and demonstrations took place in the South, while in the North many people were not fully aware of what was taking place because the lack of news coverage.


March 29, 1960, The New York Times ran an editorial advertisement placed by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, headlined, “Heed Their Rising Voices.” The advertisement was signed by many prominent figures, including four Ministers. The advertisement illustrated “the wave of terror,” brought upon African Americans by those who would not permit their right to freedom and equal rights in Montgomery Alabama.  It mentioned the brutalities of the police officers and abuses inflicted on demonstrators.


Of the 650,000 circulated, 350 went to Montgomery, Alabama.  A reporter, Cleveland Hall Jr. wrote an editorial about the advertisement in the Alabama Journal, misstatements and errors. There was no proof that students were padlocked in the dining hall in an attempt to be forced into submission, he stated in his editorial among other falsities in The New York Times ad.


L.B. Sullivan, the City Commissioner of Montgomery, filed a libel action in the Circuit Court of the Montgomery County.  Sullivan felt that in 3rd and 6th paragraph of the advertisement mention of “police” and “they” implied him.  He felt that it tarred his reputation and libeled him.  He sued The New York Times, along with the four ministers for half-million dollars. The New York Times appealed and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court.   The majority was in favor of the New York Times.  Sullivan lost because he could not prove ‘actual malice.’  The majority opinion was of Justice Brennan.


The New York Times v. Sullivan was an important case from start to finish and today because of its role in the Civil Rights Movement as well as in the Constitutional Law.  Anthony Lewis writes in great detail the events that took place.  He writes about the first trail and on the Justice Brennan’s hardship of finalizing his opinion four years later.  I find these two events to contrast a great deal, not just because one is Circuit Court and the other is the Supreme Court.  It is remarkably different because of the effort the Justices put behind their decision for justice to prevail; where as the Judge in the Circuit Court had his own agenda.


The case was tried before Walter Burgwyn Jones, who wrote the Alabama Pleading and Practice Law, as well as The Confederate Creed. The jury consisted of twelve white men whose named were published in the Alabama Journal. Everything was against the New York Times and the four black ministers who were represented by black lawyers.  The people who enforced segregation and encouraged racism were also the ones who were suppose to enforce the constitution.


Sullivan’s argument in the case was that he was associated because of the mention of police and that the statements were false.  He has six witnesses in his defense that claimed that this effected Sullivan’s reputation in a bad way.  One of the witnesses was Hall. The other five where friends and general public who felt that if the statements were true would feel differently towards Sullivan but admitted that they did not believe the statements.


The New York Times defended that they had no reason to feel that the statements were false because many people signed it.   The four ministers argued in their defense that they had no knowledge that their name was being used for the advertisement.


The judge told the jury that the  “challenged the statements in the ad were ‘libelous per se.’”  This meant that the charged already presumed the statements to be false and he told them to “remove from its consideration the consideration the question whether the advertisement was defamatory.”  So the case was already deemed “libelous, false and injurious.”  The jury voted in favor of Sullivan to be compensated for $500,000.


The verdict was a not just a great victory for Sullivan but for all of those who were pro-segregation and racism.  This was an ultimate strike for Civil Right Movement.  The verdict gave an okay to limit free speech and criticism against public officials.


Lewis writes that after the verdict and before the Supreme Court decided in the Sullivan case, Southern officials had brought nearly $300 million in libel action against the press. Journalist would have to use a great deal of precaution when writing about a demonstration or any even that took place.  The fear of Public officials abusing their powers and mistreating demonstrators would be relieved.  They could always cry, “libel” if the press got wind of their behavior


The purpose of the lawsuit against The New York Times, as Lewis states, was to change the libel laws and repair the reputation of a private party.


The aim was to discourage not false but true accounts of life under a system of white supremacy: stories about men being lynched for trying to vote; about cynical judges using the law to suppress constitutional rights, about police chiefs turning attack dogs on men and women who wanted to drink a Coke at a department-store lunch counter.  It was to scare the national press—newspapers, magazines, the television networks—of the civil right story.


This was going to limit a free press.  On top of that it would have effected the Civil Rights movement by suppressing their “rising voices” that echoed because of a free press.


Lewis describes the trouble that Brennan had when writing his opinion.  Brennan wrote eight different drafts before finalizing it. The hardest part was to explain why he felt the case should not be retried.  He felt that there was not enough sufficient evidence in favor of Sullivan to charge the New York Times.


“Justice Brennan’s proposal was that an official who sues for libel be required to meet such a demanding test I order to preserve First Amendment value,” writes Lewis.  This ground for decision would have introduced a constitutional rule in the law of libel for the first time but a very limited one.


There were disagreements with the III section of the of Justice’s Brennan’s opinion by Justice Harlan.  Harlan was going to go with a separate memorandum but eventually withdrew and joined the majority.  This part is surprising because these opinions are important to the trail.  I believe that Justice Harlan made a good decision but it can be unnerving to think that it was based on the fact he did not want to disrupt the union of the Justices.


Justice Brennan’s majority opinion outlined, once again what the 1st Amendment means in the consitiution.  He favored in the side of New York Times because this case would have ultimately limited the freedom of the free press.


Justice Brennan’s opinion stated that the proof of libel by The New York Times was not sufficient for a public official and the charges did not hold up.  In order to charge libel they would have to prove that The New York Times intended to injure and destroy his reputation with the publication.  It had to show that The New York Times had knowledge that the information was false and still proceeded to publish the ad. Justice Brennan stated the 1st Amendment allows freedom of expression and in the case where malice cannot be proven the charges are not satisfactory.


Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and, wide open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.


Justice Brennan wrote that criticism of official conduct is constitutionally protected.  Brennan also wrote of his concerns that critics of public conduct will fear to express their opinions.  It would also limit public debate.  This would ultimately put a dent on the 1st Amendment and limit people of their constitutional rights.


Justice Brennan in section III states his reasons for reversing and remanding the Sullivan case.  He stated that in the trail the witnesses did not even suggest that the Sullivan was attacked and that there was no real reference by the times.  Overall, there was no substantial testimony to support’s Sullivan’s case.


Justice Brennan writes, “ …the proposition relied on by the Alabama courts strikes at the very center of the constitutionally protected area of free expression.”


Sullivan lost the case because he could not prove actual malice. He could not prove that the New York Times had any knowledge that the material was false or libelous before publication.


Justice Black and Justice Goldberg wrote concurring opinions, however, theirs did not support the actual malice standard.  They, in their opinion, gave absolute right for the press to publish any criticism.


Justice Black writes about his concerns that the state has too much power and threatens the right to free press.    He also states that the 1st and 14th Amendment prohibit a state to exercise that power.


In regards to malice, Justice Brown states that it is hard to prove and even if, it is a short lived protection, which does not override the 1st Amendment.  He feels that the press has the “unconditional right” to criticize public affairs.


Justice Goldberg shares many of the same views as Justice Black in his opinion.  He also feels that the press should have unconditional privilege and is protected by the 1st and 14th Amendments.  He goes further by saying …”despite the harm which may flow from excess and abuses.” He states that if government officials are immune from libel actions to serve the public effectively then the public and press should have that same immunity.


They both take the decision to another level by concluding that the press and public have absolute right to criticize the conduct of public officials.  I do not agree that they have that full protection by the 1st or 14th Amendment.  Justice Black calls the legal terms obscure, which is true because it is hard to prove but it still encourages truth and honesty.  The press isn’t as unbiased as many hope it to be.  They do favor some values over others as well as public officials.  I think for the press to have the wherewithal to damage or promote a person or value is a great injustice to the readers and the public.  It may not damage a person’s reputation but it can damage the opinion of citizens.


Judge Black’s also mention the half-million dollars awarded to Sullivan in the state trail.    He says that a state doesn’t have the right to exercise such power.


Even if Sullivan was in the right, the amount is extremely excessive.  Lewis also addresses this in his book.   He writes about the increase of libel suits and the damages awarded.  The amount that many sue for is enough to ruin a business as well an increase the number of libel case.


The decision in The New York Times v. Sullivan was so shaky because of the justices being cautious of not ruling that “Alabama should follow their laws,” it left an uncertainty on how to sue in a libel case.


The amount in which the plaintiff is suing for illustrates their anger write Lewis but the decision in the Sullivan case could have suggested some basic rules and could have done so if the “they had used the issue of damages to dispose of the Sullivan case.


He writes that the Sullivan rule makes it hard for those who have been libel from proving their good name. It is difficult to prove whether someone’s intent was malicious or not, you would have to be a mind reader.


In John Goldmark case mentioned, the Judge establishes the fact that the printed material was false and cleared John Goldmark’s name.


Lewis writes on numbers of proposals that have take place after the Sullivan case that never went anywhere but which, may or may not have worked.   Reforms like the Annenberg Proposal that outlined things that could be done in order to achieve the greater purpose, clearing the name and correcting the falsities.


More importantly Lewis writes about the Hustler v. Jerry Farwell case.  Judge Rehnquist applied the Sullivan rule in which, the publisher printed the ad of Farwell with the intent of actual malice.  For pubic figures and officials, when stepping in the limelight they are stepping into the public’s right to criticize and in this case make fun of.  “For the foreseeable future, the constitutional law of libel would now rest on The New York Times v. Sullivan.


The New York Times v. Sullivan is undoubtedly one of the most important cases that will play a role thought out my career in media.  It’s importance at the times weighed on how it would affect the Civil Rights Movement and the right to free speech and press. Today it is a rule that strengthens the 1st Amendment allowing giving people the ultimate right to voice their opinions.


If the ruling would have been other then what it is, it would have put a huge dent on the 1st Amendment not only creating more libel cases but what if people openly discussed public officials at church or other public meetings? Could they have sued for libel then too?


I think that the ruling was significant and that if the Justices’ had added some basic rules like how we were to sue for libel it would have taken away from our constitutional right.  The abstractions about malice and the legalities that come with the rule are abstraction that people have argued about for centuries since Socrates asked, “what is justice.”


If the Justices did make basic rules, they would, in effect be telling the people what to right or how to argue ones feeling on a matter.  Like Lewis wrote in his last chapter the amount states illustrates the person’s anger.        The Sullivan rule is important because it defends the right to speech in press without limiting.  Any other way would be unconstitutional




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