New York Times Co. v. Sullivan: The Decision That Protected Press Freedom

Your humble columnist and the newspapers that publish this column both owe a great debt to the Supreme Court for the landmark case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which, as much as any legal decision ever made, protects a newspaper’s ability to seek out the truth.

Our story begins in 1960, when the Times published an advertisement placed by a civil rights group that criticized certain “Southern violators of the Constitution.”  At the time, members of the nascent civil rights movement were being harassed, incarcerated and beaten by avowed segregationists, especially in Montgomery, Alabama, where L.B. Sullivan served as police commissioner.  Sullivan took offense at the ad’s generic description of actions by “the police,” even though the ad never mentioned him by name. He sued the Times for libel, seeking $500,000 in damages.

In the subsequent trial, which occurred in Montgomery, an all-white jury awarded Sullivan the full amount, and when lawyers for the Times appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds — that restricting freedom of the press was unconstitutional — the court ruled against them, arguing that the First Amendment did not protect slanderous statements, which the lower court ruled had occurred in this case because several statements in the advertisement, although trivial, were incorrect.  Worse, Alabama’s Supreme Court took the lower court’s ruling a step further, stating that when any government department is criticized, then any member of that department can sue for libel.  That ruling, had it stood, would have given blanket immunity from criticism to all branches of government.

It also would have returned us to the year 1800, when President John Adams instituted the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, the latter of which made it a crime to criticize members of his government.  However, when Tom Jefferson replaced Adams, the Sedition Acts were immediately repealed and every editor arrested under them released.

Which was exactly the historic precedent that the Times lawyers used in arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that First Amendment protections did apply in this case, and that criticizing public officials is a long-standing right.  The Supreme Court agreed, and this week (March 7) in 1964, it handed down its decision, stipulating that as long as there was “absence of malice”— meaning that any incorrect statements were not made on purpose — then criticism of government officials is protected speech.

To gauge how important NYT v. Sullivan was to the free press we enjoy today, consider this. Exactly a decade after it was handed down, the Nixon administration and the national media were fighting an all-out war over press coverage of the Watergate break-in. Ask yourself whether that battle might have ended differently had NYT v. Sullivan not been in effect.