New York Times v. Sullivan: Protection of False Statements (03/09/1964)

New York Times Company v. Sullivan

Did Alabama’s law of not requiring Sullivan to prove that an advertisement personally harmed him and dismissing the same as untruthful due to factual errors, infringe upon the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and freedom of press protections?

Argued: 01/5-6/1964

Decision Date: 03/09/1964

Decision Record: 9-0; no

Justices Majority: Earl Warren, Harry Black, William Douglas, Tom Clark, John Harlan, William Brennan, Potter Stewart, Byron White, Arthur Goldberg

Justices Dissenting: None

Effect of the Decision

This case ruled that false statements, as long as done with no malice, are protected under the First Amendment.

In Favor

In the favoring side of this case, on the side of the the New York Times, attorney Herbert Wechsler argued, “I was saying that the writ calls for review, a judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama which in our submission poses hazards for these — freedom of the press, not confronted since the early days of the Republic.

The questions presented are, in general, first, how far the civil law of libel may be used by state officials to punish the publication of statements critical of their official conduct or of the conduct of the agencies of which they are in-charge.

And second, how far a state may force a newspaper which publishes a thousand miles away to defend libel actions instituted in its forum because its correspondents go there on occasion to cover news of national importance as — for a very small amount of advertising emanates from sources in the State and a very small circulation of the paper in this instance, 394 copies of the total daily circulation of 650,000 found its way into the State.

The problems arise in this context.

The action was instituted by the respondent, Mr. L.B. Sullivan, one of the three elected Commissioners of the City of Montgomery, Alabama.

It was brought against the Times and four codefendants who were then residents of Alabama, four clergymen, the Reverends Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, Seay and Lowery.

These are the petitioners in Number 40.

The complaint demands damages of $500,000 for libel allegedly contained in two paragraphs of a full page advertisement that was published in the Times on March 29th, 1960.

I should say that similar actions based on the same advertisement were instituted by the other two city Commissioners by a former Commissioner and by the then Governor of the State of Alabama, Governor Patterson.

They had dominance in these other suits, total $2 million.

But this was the first of the five cases brought to trial and it resulted in a verdict in a judgment against all defendants for the $500,000 claim.

Of the other cases, only the James case, the case by Mayor James has gone to trial, there was the same verdict there but that’s pending on motion for new trial in the State of — in the Alabama Court.

The other three cases were removed by the Times to the United States District Court.

The removal was sustained by the District Court but remand was ordered in a divided judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

And that case involving the order of remand is also pending in this Court on petition for writ of certiorari in Number 52 of this term.”


In the opposition, on the side of Sullivan, attorney M. Roland Nachman, Jr., “I would like to address myself to what at the outset to what I consider to be a short difference between Mr. Wechsler’s analysis of the facts and facts as I see them.

And I would like to do that in the context that this case is here obviously after a jury verdict, after the case has been before a trial court on a motion for new trial, after it’s been before the high state appellate court.

And we do not rely on there being something in the record to support it.

We say there was ample and indeed overwhelming evidence to support the jury verdict but we do remind the Court at the outset in view of the trend of the argument as it has gone up to now.

We’re not here like in Norris on a question of whether a judge in a pretrial proceeding correctly decided the question of whether there was discrimination against Negroes in the selection of a grand jury panel.

And we’re not here as in Bridges on the question of whether a judge was correct when he decided a contempt proceeding.

We’re here after a jury trial with all that that means in terms of the Seventh Amendment.

Now, on the issue of falsity, which is where Mr. Wechsler began, I would like to take this step-by-step as this lawsuit progressed.

A demand for retraction was filed as it had to be filed under Alabama law before the lawsuit began.

An answer was received and this is in the record.”




The decision in this case was 9-0, meaning it was unanimous. Justice Brennan wrote the majority opinion, saying, “There was no reference to respondent in the advertisement, either by name or official position. A number of the allegedly libelous statements — the charges that the dining hall was padlocked and that Dr. King’s home was bombed, his person assaulted, and a perjury prosecution instituted against him — did not even concern the police; despite the ingenuity of the arguments which would attach this significance to the word “They,” it is plain that these statements could not reasonably be read as accusing respondent of personal involvement in the acts in question. The statements upon which respondent principally relies as referring to him are the two allegations that did concern the police or police functions: that “truckloads of police . . . ringed the Alabama State College Campus” after the demonstration on the State Capitol steps, and that Dr. King had been “arrested . . . seven times.” These statements were false only in that the police had been “deployed near” the campus, but had not actually “ringed” it, and had not gone there in connection with the State Capitol demonstration, and in that Dr. King had been arrested only four times. The ruling that these discrepancies between what was true and what was asserted were sufficient to injure respondent’s reputation may itself raise constitutional problems, but we need not consider them here. Although the statements may be taken as referring to the police, they did not, on their face, make even an oblique reference to respondent as an individual. Support for the asserted reference must, therefore, be sought in the testimony of respondent’s witnesses. But none of them suggested any basis for the belief that respondent himself was attacked in the advertisement beyond the bare fact that he was in overall charge of the Police Department and thus bore official responsibility for police conduct; to the extent that some of the witnesses thought respondent to have been charged with ordering or approving the conduct or otherwise being personally involved in it, they based this notion not on any statements in the advertisement, and not on any evidence that he had, in fact, been so involved, but solely on the unsupported assumption that, because of his official position, he must have been.”

My Opinion:

I agree with the majority, which in this case was unanimous. Regardless of what one says, the First Amendment, protecting the freedom of speech and expression defends what it is that they say, whether you agree or not. Unless the words are used with malice or intent to threat, everyone has the right to exercise their constitutional right to the freedom of speech. In this case, the statements made were false, but with no malicious intent, therefore protected by the First Amendment

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

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