Case Briefs

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

Case(s): New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)

L.B. Sullivan, an elected official in Montgomery, Alabama, filed suit in an Alabama state court alleging that he had been libeled by an advertisement in the New York Times newspaper, which included defamatory statements describing the maltreatment of African American students protesting segregation by police under Sullivan’s supervision.

State Court Proceedings

The trial judge instructed the jury that such statements were “libelous per se,” and thus, legal injury was implied without proof of actual damages, and that, for the purpose of compensatory damages, malice was presumed, so that damages could be awarded against petitioners if the statements were found to have been published by the Times and to have related to Sullivan. In terms of punitive damages, the judge instructed that mere negligence was not evidence of actual malice, and would not justify an award of punitive damages. He did not instruct the jury that actual intent to harm or recklessness had to be found before punitive damages could be awarded, or that a verdict for Sullivan should differentiate between compensatory and punitive damages. The jury found for Sullivan, and the State Supreme Court affirmed.

Supreme Court Decision

Taking on the case, the Supreme Court held that a State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves “actual malice” – that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.

Writing for the court in a decision March 9, 1964, Justice Brennan stated that …

(a) Application by state courts of a rule of law, whether statutory or not, to award a judgment in a civil action, is “state action” under the Fourteenth Amendment.

(b) Expression does not lose constitutional protection to which it would otherwise be entitled because it appears in the form of a paid advertisement.

(c) Factual error, content defamatory of official reputation, or both, are insufficient to warrant an award of damages for false statements unless “actual malice” – knowledge that statements are false or in reckless disregard of the truth – is alleged and proved.

(d) State court judgment entered upon a general verdict which does not differentiate between punitive damages, as to which, under state law, actual malice must be proved, and general damages, as to which it is “presumed,” precludes any determination as to the basis of the verdict, and requires reversal, where presumption of malice is inconsistent with federal constitutional requirements.

(e) The evidence was constitutionally insufficient to support the judgment for Sullivan, since it failed to support a finding that the statements were made with actual malice or that they related to Sullivan.