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NEW YORK TIMES CO, v. SULLIVAN (1964)

Freedom of speech and press are often seen as rights precious to isolated individuals with unorthodox views. Sometimes, however, it is that very individual whose honorable reputation is threatened by those very freedoms. How to balance the freedom of a huge corporate press with an individual's protection against libel was the question faced by the Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. On Monday, March 9, 1964, when Justice William Brennan read his opinion for a unanimous Court in the case, he revolutionized the law of libel in the United States.

It had been a long four years since L. B. Sullivan, the city commissioner in charge of police in Montgomery, Alabama, had filed suit against The New York Times. Sullivan sued because of a full-page advertisement in the Times by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom m the South. The committee numbered among its officers Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte; A. Philip Randolph, legendary black leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was chairman; the treasurer was Nat King Cole. The ad was endorsed by thirty-five black and white notables including Eleanor Roosevelt, Shelley Winters, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Norman Thomas. These names were listed prominently above the names of an additional twenty black ministers, all leaders in the escalating civil rights movement in the South. (L.B. Sullivan was nowhere mentioned.) The ad was a response to the physical and economic harassment of black leaders in Alabama, particularly Martin Luther King, Jr.

Commissioner L. B. Sullivan took the matter personally. Everyone in Montgomery, he believed, knew that charges against the police there amounted to a personal attack on him. He fired off a registered letter to the Times demanding a "full and fair retraction" of the implied charges. The Times, of course, refused. Sullivan sued.

The law of libel was almost entirely a matter for state adjudication in 1960. The U.S. Supreme Court routinely held that First Amendment protections of speech and press did not protect against libelous statements. In most states, however, truth was a defense against charges of libel. Unfortunately for The New York Times, the offending ad included several false statements. For instance, it claimed that police had "ringed" the Alabama State College campus, when in fact the police had merely been stationed in various places in the area; and King had not been arrested seven times—only four.

Witnesses attested to the fact that Montgomery citizens naturally associated the attack on the police with L. B. Sullivan, and it was clear that his professional reputation had been damaged in the community. The statements, then, were "libelous per se," and Sullivan did not have to demonstrate any tangible loss. The Montgomery jury awarded him $500,000.

Sullivan's success brought additional suits against the Times ultimately amounting to over five million dollars. Not only was the civil rights movement in the South threatened, but so was the very existence of The New York Times. The publishers took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court under First Amendment protections.

The Times wanted the Court to declare that no criticism of public officials should ever be actionable. They got three judges to agree—but only three. Brennan, assigned to write the opinion, had to qualify the finding so as to bring in at least two more. He worked at the job all through the 1964 term, and finally got not just a majority, but unanimity.

The Court declared that statements about public officials had to be published with "actual malice," which they defined as "knowledge that [the statement] was false or [made] with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." The conditions had to be established by the plaintiff by "clear and convincing proof."

Sullivan's claims could not stand up to these new conditions; his suit failed. The Times was saved, but more significantly, so was Martin Luther King and his crusade for civil rights. The law of libel was given a federal umbrella under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

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TITLE: Law and Legal Services at CitiMall Shopping Mall

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