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N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) (full-text).

Factual Background[]

On March 29, 1960, the New York Times carried a full-page advertisement titled "Heed Their Rising Voices," which solicited funds to defend Martin Luther King, Jr. against an Alabama perjury indictment. The advertisement described actions against civil rights protesters, some of them inaccurately, some of which involved the police force of Montgomery, Alabama. Although Commissioner L. B. Sullivan was not named in the advertisement, the inaccurate criticism of the actions by the police were considered as defamation against him as well by virtue of his position and duty to supervise the police department.

Alabama law denied a public officer recovery of punitive damages in a libel action brought on account of a publication concerning their official conduct unless they first make a written demand for a public retraction and the defendant fails or refuses to comply, so Sullivan sent such a request. The Times did not publish a retraction in response to the demand. Instead it wrote a letter stating, among other things, that "we . . . are somewhat puzzled as to how you think the statements in any way reflect on you," and "you might, if you desire, let us know in what respect you claim that the statements in the advertisement reflect on you." Sullivan did not respond but instead filed this suit a few days later. He also sued four black ministers mentioned in the ad. Sullivan won $500,000 in an Alabama court judgment.

The Times did, however, subsequently publish a retraction of the advertisement upon the demand of Governor John Patterson of Alabama, who asserted that the publication charged him with "grave misconduct and . . . improper actions and omissions as Governor of Alabama and ex-officio chairman of the State Board of Education of Alabama." When asked to explain why there had been a retraction for the Governor but not for Sullivan, the Secretary of the Times testified: "We did that because we didn't want anything that was published by the Times to be a reflection on the State of Alabama and the Governor was, as far as we could see, the embodiment of the State of Alabama and the proper representative of the state and, furthermore, we had by that time learned more of the actual facts which the ad purported to recite and, finally, the ad did refer to the action of the state authorities and the Board of Education presumably of which the Governor is the ex-officio chairman. . . ." On the other hand, he testified that he did not think that "any of the language in there referred to Mr. Sullivan."

U.S. Supreme Court Proceedings[]

The rule of law applied by the Alabama courts was found constitutionally deficient for failure to provide the safeguards for freedom of speech and of the press that are required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct. The decision further held that under the proper safeguards the evidence presented in this case was constitutionally insufficient to support the judgment for Sullivan.

Actual malice[]

The U.S. Supreme Court held that for a public official to recover for defamation, he must show actual malice. This term was not newly invented for this case, but was a term from existing libel law. In many jurisdictions, including Alabama (where the case arose), proof of "actual malice" (actual knowledge of falsity, or reckless disregard for the truth) was required in order for punitive damages to be awarded, or for other increased penalties.

Since proof of the writer's malicious intentions is hard to establish, proof that the writer knowingly published a falsehood was generally accepted as proof of malice, under the assumption that only a malicious person would knowingly publish a falsehood. In Hoeppner v. Dunkirk Printing Co.,[1] the court said:

The plaintiff alleges that this criticism of him and of his work was not fair and was not honest; it was published with actual malice, ill will and spite. If he establishes this allegation, he has made out a cause of action. No comment or criticism, otherwise libelous, is fair or just comment on a matter of public interest if it be made through actual ill will and malice.

The Supreme Court adopted the term "actual malice" and gave it constitutional significance, at the same time defining it in terms of the proof required to establish actual malice.


  1. 254 N.Y. 95, 106, 172 N.E. 139, 237 N.Y.S. 123 (1930).

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