New York Times v. Sullivan
376 U.S. 254 (1964)

  • The Times ran an advertisement to help solicit funds to defend Martin Luther King Jr., who was being prosecuted in Alabama. The ad criticized the Montgomery Alabama police, and by implication, Sullivan, the city commissioner.
    • Turns out, some of the allegations were factually untrue.
  • Sullivan was hurt by the accusation and ended up suing the Times for defamation of character.
    • Under Alabama law, Sullivan didn’t have to show that he had actually been harmed, and that there was no defense of free speech available unless the allegations were true.
  • The Trial Court found for Sullivan and awarded him $500k in damages, the Times appealed.
    • The Times argued that allowing Sullivan to sue them for libel was an unconstitutional infringement of their 1st Amendment right to free speech, even though their allegations turned out to be false.
  • The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. The Times appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the 1st Amendment applies to all speech, even if it turns out that that speech contains falsehoods.
      • There is an exception. Statements made with actual malice are not protected.
        • Actual malice means with knowledge that the statements are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.
  • Basically, this case says that if you publish something you think is true, and it turns out to be false, you can’t be sued for libel. But if you knowingly and maliciously publish something that is false, then you are not protected by the 1st Amendment.
    • This was later narrowed to only cover public figures. Dun and Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc. (472 U.S. 749 (1985)), said that if you publish something about a private figure that turns out to be false, you can be sued, even though you thought it was true at the time.