If I accidentally say something about a politician that’s not true, can I get in trouble? In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court looked at the question and used the concept of “actual malice,” which it defined as “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not,” to determine the answer. How do you think the court ruled? Click the button below to read the case or scroll for a summary to find the answer.
New York Times v. Sullivan
Background: Traditionally, defendants in a defamation case were required to prove that the statements they made were true. The outcome of this case puts the burden of proof on the plaintiff.
Facts: In 1960, The New York Times ran a full-page advertisement paid for by civil right activists. The ad openly criticized the police department in Montgomery, Alabama for its treatment of civil rights protestors. Most of the descriptions in the ad were accurate, but some were false. The police commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, sued The New York Times in an Alabama court. Sullivan argued that the ad had damaged his reputation, and he had been libeled. The Alabama court ruled in favor of Sullivan, finding that the newspaper ad falsely represented the police department and Sullivan. After losing an appeal in the Supreme Court of Alabama, The New York Times took its case to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the ad was not meant to hurt Sullivan's reputation and was protected under the First Amendment.
Court Ruling: The Court unanimously ruled in favor of the newspaper. The Court asserted America’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Free and open debate about the conduct of public official, the Court stated, was more important than occasional, honest factual errors that might hurt or damage officials’ reputations. Justice William J. Brennan, writing for six-member majority of the Court, held:
The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering 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 whether it was false or not.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Hugo Black wrote,
I doubt that a country can live in freedom where its people can be made to suffer physically or financially for criticizing their government, its actions, or its officials…An unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs is what I consider to be the minimum guarantee of the First Amendment.
Content from American Bar Association, “Free Press and SCOTUS: Incorporating Case Studies in the Classroom,” Law Day 2019 Planning Guide, available at https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/law-day/law-day-2019/planning-guide/High-school-lesson-plans/