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New York Times Co. v. Sullivan: The First Amendment and a Landmark Libel Decision - Jacob Nguyen

Historical Background

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court handed down in 1964. The case originated when 35 students from an all-black institution, Alabama State College, requested to be served at a snack bar in the Montgomery County Courthouse basement in defiance of the laws and customs of the South in that period, which enforced racial segregation under a system known as “Jim Crow.” All 35 were arrested, and then faced the likelihood of expulsion by Governor John Patterson. Patterson did indeed issue the expulsion order, and 800 students of Alabama State college marched in protest. The protest, which confronted not only Montgomery law enforcement but also members of the Ku Klux Klan, attracted national attention and placed increased pressure on supporters of the civil rights movement to raise money for legal and other expenses. To raise that money, supporters of the students placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times asking readers to raise funds as a means to end racial segregation. The advertisement detailed the civil rights movement and the protests that had occurred in Montgomery, Alabama.

The advertisement described the events surrounding the protest, and in its description, it made several errors. The advertisement alleged, for instance, that students had sung the National Anthem during the protest; it claimed police had “ringed” the campus and “padlocked” the dining hall. It also maintained that Martin Luther King, who was helping to organize and oversee the demonstrations, had been arrested seven times by Southern police forces. The students had sung “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and though police had responded forcefully and the dining hall had been closed, the campus was never literally “ringed,” nor was the hall “padlocked.” Finally, King had been arrested four times, not seven.

Montgomery Police Commissioner L. B. Sullivan filed a lawsuit against the New York Times in 1963. He cited the errors in the ad and claimed the New York Times publication of the ad damaged his reputation and reflected poorly on his subordinates. An all-white jury of Alabama citizens ruled in his favor and awarded him $500,000 in damages. The case went on to be heard by the Supreme Court of Alabama where the outcome resulted in favor of the plaintiff; The New York Times’ motion for a mistrial was denied.

The 1964 case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan resulted in the United States Supreme Court handing down a unanimous (9-0) decision. The reasoning behind this decision was that an offending statement must be proven to have been published with “actual malice,” a new standard created by the court and which the court defined as publishing either with the knowledge that the statement was false or recklessly failing to determine whether it was true or false. As the Encyclopedia Britannica and others have noted, one consequence of the decision was that it made it very difficult for public officials – later public officials – to prevail in libel cases. The case has created a broad historical precedent that has influenced the interpretation of the First Amendment by public officials and the media, particularly in the area of false statements made by the press.

Justices Thomas & Gorsuch

In 2021, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch broke from the rest of their colleagues in suggesting that the Supreme Court reconsider the landmark decision, proposing instead that the court take steps to make it easier for public officials who hope to win libel lawsuits. Justice Thomas has voiced that opinion on a few occasions. For instance, in 2019 when Former President Trump was in office, Justice Thomas said that “the states are perfectly capable of striking an acceptable balance between encouraging robust public discourse and providing a meaningful remedy for reputational harm” (Liptak, New York Times).

On the 2020 campaign trail, Trump repeatedly called for reconsideration of New York Times v. Sullivan, arguing that it provided too much protection for the press and not enough power to public officials about whom false and defamatory statements were published. Although he has not persuaded a majority of the court to join him, Justice Thomas continues to establish this belief by writing in an opinion alongside the case McKee v. Cosby that the New York Times and the court’s decision to extend “policy-driven” decisions were masqueraded to be seen as constitutional law (Kupperman, CNN). In addition, his opinion on McKee v. Cosby further emphasizes that there is no requirement in the Constitution to establish a malice standard for public figures to overcome, so the court shouldn’t rule in that direction as well. The McKee v. Cosby's opinion for not requiring a standard to be met before filing suit is echoed by Justice Thomas in his latest proposal of reconsidering New York Times v. Sullivan (Kupperman, CNN).

Alongside Thomas is Justice Gorsuch who also wishes to overturn the ruling of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. Although Gorsuch has not argued that NYT v. Sullivan was wrongly decided, he dissented from the court’s denial of review in Berisha v. Lawson, No. 20-1063. Specifically, he commented that the “momentous changes in the Nation’s media landscape since 1964” requires the court to revisit New York Times v. Sullivan (Liptak, New York Times). Despite the changes in our present-day media and reporting, holding public officials in high positions of authority like Trump accountable for their actions is the priority. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch offered their views of NYT v. Sullivan as dissents from the Supreme Court's rejection of the case Berisha v. Lawson review. That case was brought by the son of Albania’s former prime minister, who sued an author for publishing a book that dishonestly associated him with an illegal arms deal. The United States 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mr. Berisha was a public figure, and thus was required, by the rule established in NYT v. Sullivan, to demonstrate that the author and publisher acted with malice.

Is it a good law?

The ruling of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan is a good law for several reasons. Public officials are kept in check and are reminded of who they truly serve, the American people. Newspapers such as the New York Times can freely, without fear of retaliation, publish pieces that they know can corroborate the truth in one way or another. However, if they were to write an unintentionally “distasteful” piece about a public official, the individual can not respond with a libel lawsuit unless that official can meet a high burden. It is undoubtedly a good law in the sense that it discourages corruption even at the highest levels of political office. The President will not file suit for libel or defamation unless he can provide substantial evidence of there being ill intent or clear disregard for the truth. This case establishes a clear and even playing field for both sides to respectfully communicate without matters escalating.

The Supreme Court of the United States must interpret the constitution which usually follows precedent. In 1964, ruling in favor of the New York Times set the foundation of freedom for reporting on public officials, and without the safety laws in place for journalists the world would be stripped of the truth. Ultimately, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan has changed the trajectory of the First Amendment’s influence on journalism and has aided in uncovering the truth in our society.

Work Cited

Kupperman, Tammy, and Sophie Tatum. “Justice Clarence Thomas Calls for Reconsideration of Landmark Libel Case | CNN Politics.” CNN. Cable News Network, February 19, 2019.

Liptak, Adam. “Justice Clarence Thomas Calls for Reconsideration of Landmark Libel Ruling.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 19, 2019.

Liptak, Adam. “Two Justices Say Supreme Court Should Reconsider Landmark Libel Decision.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 2, 2021.

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