New York Times v. Sullivan

Case Type:

Historical (1964).


In 1960 the New York Times publishes "Heed Their Rising Voices" (picture, text) a fund-raising advertisement for the civil rights movement. The ad contained several minor errors of fact. Sullivan, one of three city Commissioners in Montgomery, Alabama, becomes aware of the ad. He sues the New York Times for libel, claiming that the ad refers to him in that he oversees the Montgommery police department which was mentioned in it. The jury grants him damages of half a million dollars; the New York Times appeals to the Supreme Court.


The U.S. Supreme Court.


Brennan writing for a unanimous Court argued that that the "profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open" made the ad in question an instance of very valuable speech.

Was this value outweighed by the harm that falsities could cause, or the harm done to Sullivan's reputation? No: for the government should not be involved in judging truth; and government officials should be tough enough to take criticism.

This is the lesson of the Sedition Acts of 1798: in apparent recognition of the Act's unconstitutionality, all fines levied under it had been repaid and all those convicted pardoned.

Allowing libel lawsuits in cases like this one, further, would tend to "chill" future criticism of government officials, even legitimate criticism, for a "pall of fear and timidity" would fall over speakers, leading to "'self-censorship.'"

Therefore a "public official" may not recover "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" of the truth.

This is, after all, the rule governing defamation lawsuits brought by citizens against officials; it's only fair to apply it when officials sue citizens.

Justice Black in a concurring opinion argued that the First Amendment absolutely protects criticism of the government, even speech published with actual malice.


The judgment was reversed.


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Last updated 22 January 1998
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