Fifty years ago today, in a case driven by the ugly racial conflicts of the early 1960s, the United States Supreme Court radically revised almost two centuries of American libel law in the most important First Amendment case ever decided, New York Times v. Sullivan.
In 1960, a group of civil rights leaders purchased a full-page ad in The New York Times under the banner “Heed Their Rising Voices.” The ad referenced “an unprecedented wave of terror” against students engaged in non-violent civil rights demonstrations in the South. It singled out Montgomery County, Alabama, as a place of particularly aggressive acts by law enforcement, although it mentioned no public officials by name or title.
L.B. Sullivan, a Montgomery County Commissioner whose duties included oversight of the local police, brought a libel suit alleging he had been defamed by the ad, which contained minor inaccuracies. The total circulation of the Times was then 650,000, including 394 copies that made their way to Alabama. Sullivan’s case against the Times and four black clergymen who signed the ad was tried for three days in November 1960.
The Times had great difficulty even finding an Alabama lawyer who would represent it at trial. According to legal scholar Rodney Smolla, the courtroom was “thick with racial prejudice.” Seating was segregated, one of Sullivan’s lawyers was heard to pronounce “Negro” as “nigger” as he read the advertisement to the jury, and the judge spoke openly of “white man’s justice,” according to Smolla’s account. A local daily newspaper, in an article captioned “The Abolitionist Hellmouths,” said Alabama and its three million citizens had been “savagely injured” by the Times.
Sullivan asked for damages of $500,000, and the all-white jury returned a verdict for every penny of it. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the award, and the United States Supreme Court agreed to review the case. As the Supreme Court noted in its opinion, four other plaintiffs had brought libel suits against the Times based on the ad, and one of those had resulted in another $500,000 verdict. By the time the Sullivan case was decided, Southern officials had brought libel actions against the media seeking nearly $300 million in damages, according to Anthony Lewis’s book Make No Law.
The strategy was clear: make the national media bleed money, and they will be forced to pack their tents, head home, and cease being the world’s window onto the civil rights movement. Civil rights leaders knew that even if their protests were not changing the hearts and minds of most Southerners, newspaper accounts and television coverage of the ugly reactions to the protests were winning support around the country for the social and political changes that eventually arrived.
A string of libel verdicts totaling in the tens of millions of dollars – and the costs of defending these suits – would have crippled the media companies covering the civil rights protests. And a media retreat from that coverage would, in turn, have been devastating to the civil rights movement.
In reversing the libel verdict, the Court sang out the importance of our democracy’s historical reliance on public criticism of government and its officials to make our institutions work better.
“We consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” Justice William Brennan wrote.
The Court added new protections for speech, unanimously holding that public officials cannot win libel suits unless they prove by clear and convincing evidence that the writer knew the statement uttered was false or actually had serious doubts about its truth. Until that decision, citizens in many states criticized public officials at their peril: if their statements simply turned out to be false, the speakers could lose libel suits brought by the officials and incur significant damages.
It was this dramatic intersection of the civil rights movement with democracy’s need for “uninhibited debate” about public affairs that drove the Court to reverse the Sullivan verdict and establish these First Amendment protections.
If the Supreme Court had let the Sullivan verdict stand, the painful struggle for basic civil rights would have lasted even longer.
And the robust, uninhibited, wide-open speech so necessary to effective public debate would instead tend toward the timid and restrained. We would be a lesser country.
Happy 50th Birthday, New York Times v. Sullivan. And thank you, Justice Brennan.