In 1960, a civil-rights group ran a full-page advertisement in The New York Times,decrying police treatment of African American student protesters in Montgomery, Alabama. Among other things, the ad claimed that the Montgomery police had attempted to “starve [the students] into submission” by padlocking the student dining hall.
At the time, Sullivan was the Montgomery Commissioner of Public Affairs, and his job was to supervise the police department. Sullivan took offense to the ad and sued The New York Times. Sullivan argued that several statements in the ad were false or exaggerated and therefore libelous.
The Alabama state court concluded that the advertisement was libelous per se, meaning that there was no need to prove the ad harmed Sullivan’s reputation for the court to award damages. The Times appealed on First Amendment grounds, and ultimately, the United States Supreme Court accepted the case.
The issue before the Court was whether a public official could recover in a defamation action for false statements related to public issues.
The Court unanimously held that the First Amendment protected the newspaper by limiting the damages available to public officials for defamation. Under the Court’s ruling, public officials may recover for false statements only if they are made with actual malice. Justice Brennan’s opinion made clear that the threat of expensive litigation could chill the free speech necessary to uninhibited debate.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), established more stringent requirements for public officials to recover for defamation and remains a cornerstone of modern First Amendment jurisprudence.
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