New York Times Co v. Sullivan

376 U.S. 254
New York Times Co v. Sullivan
Argued: December 9, 1952
Reargued: December 8, 1953
Decided: May 17, 1954


Respondent, an elected official in Montgomery, Alabama, brought suit in a state court alleging that he had been libeled by an advertisement in corporate petitioner’s newspaper, the text of which appeared over the names of the four individual petitioners and many others. The advertisement included statements, some of which were false, about police action allegedly directed against students who participated in a civil rights demonstration and against a leader of the civil rights movement; respondent claimed the statements referred to him because his duties included supervision of the police department. The trial judge instructed the jury that such statements were “libelous per se,” legal injury being implied without proof of actual damages, and that, for the purpose of compensatory damages, malice was presumed, so that such damages could be awarded against petitioners if the statements were found to have been published by them and to have related to respondent. As to punitive damages, the judge instructed that mere negligence was not evidence of actual malice, and would not justify an award of punitive damages; he refused to instruct that actual intent to harm or recklessness had to be found before punitive damages could be awarded, or that a verdict for respondent should differentiate between compensatory and punitive damages. The jury found for respondent, and the State Supreme Court affirmed.

Held: 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. Pp. 265-292.

(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. P. 265.

(b) Expression does not lose constitutional protection to which it would otherwise be entitled because it appears in the form of a paid advertisement. Pp. 265-266. [p255]

(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. Pp. 279-283.

(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. P. 284.

(e) The evidence was constitutionally insufficient to support the judgment for respondent, since it failed to support a finding that the statements were made with actual malice or that they related to respondent. Pp. 285-292.

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Concurring Opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK, with whom MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS joins, concurring.

I concur in reversing this half-million-dollar judgment against the New York Times Company and the four individual defendants. In reversing, the Court holds that

the Constitution delimits a State’s power to award damages for libel in actions brought by public officials against critics of their official conduct.

Ante, p. 283. I base my vote to reverse on the belief that the First and Fourteenth Amendments not merely “delimit” a State’s power to award damages to “public officials against critics of their official conduct,” but completely prohibit a State from exercising such a power. The Court goes on to hold that a State can subject such critics to damages if “actual malice” can be proved against them. “Malice,” even as defined by the Court, is an elusive, abstract concept, hard to prove and hard to disprove. The requirement that malice be proved provides, at best, an evanescent protection for the right critically to discuss public affairs, and certainly does not measure up to the sturdy safeguard embodied in the First Amendment. Unlike the Court, therefore, I vote to reverse exclusively on the ground that the Times and the individual defendants had an absolute, unconditional constitutional right to publish in the Times advertisement their criticisms of the Montgomery agencies and officials. I do not base my vote to reverse on any failure to prove that these individual defendants signed the advertisement or that their criticism of the Police Department was aimed at the plaintiff Sullivan, who was then the Montgomery City Commissioner having supervision of the city’s police; for present purposes, I assume these things were proved. Nor is my reason for reversal the size of the half-million-dollar judgment, large as it is. If Alabama has constitutional power to use its civil libel law to impose damages on the press for criticizing the way public officials perform or fail [p294] to perform their duties, I know of no provision in the Federal Constitution which either expressly or impliedly bars the State from fixing the amount of damages.

The half-million-dollar verdict does give dramatic proof, however, that state libel laws threaten the very existence of an American press virile enough to publish unpopular views on public affairs and bold enough to criticize the conduct of public officials. The factual background of this case emphasizes the imminence and enormity of that threat. One of the acute and highly emotional issues in this country arises out of efforts of many people, even including some public officials, to continue state-commanded segregation of races in the public schools and other public places despite our several holdings that such a state practice is forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment. Montgomery is one of the localities in which widespread hostility to desegregation has been manifested. This hostility has sometimes extended itself to persons who favor desegregation, particularly to so-called “outside agitators,” a term which can be made to fit papers like the Times, which is published in New York. The scarcity of testimony to show that Commissioner Sullivan suffered any actual damages at all suggests that these feelings of hostility had at least as much to do with rendition of this half-million-dollar verdict as did an appraisal of damages. Viewed realistically, this record lends support to an inference that, instead of being damaged, Commissioner Sullivan’s political, social, and financial prestige has likely been enhanced by the Times’ publication. Moreover, a second half-million-dollar libel verdict against the Times based on the same advertisement has already been awarded to another Commissioner. There, a jury again gave the full amount claimed. There is no reason to believe that there are not more such huge verdicts lurking just around the corner for the Times or any other newspaper or broadcaster which [p295] might dare to criticize public officials. In fact, briefs before us show that, in Alabama, there are now pending eleven libel suits by local and state officials against the Times seeking $5,600,000, and five such suits against the Columbia Broadcasting System seeking $1,700,000. Moreover, this technique for harassing and punishing a free press — now that it has been shown to be possible — is by no means limited to cases with racial overtones; it can be used in other fields where public feelings may make, local as well as out-of-state, newspapers easy prey for libel verdict seekers.

In my opinion, the Federal Constitution has dealt with this deadly danger to the press in the only way possible without leaving the free press open to destruction — by granting the press an absolute immunity for criticism of the way public officials do their public duty. Compare Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564. Stopgap measures like those the Court adopts are, in my judgment, not enough. This record certainly does not indicate that any different verdict would have been rendered here whatever the Court had charged the jury about “malice,” “truth,” “good motives,” “justifiable ends,” or any other legal formulas which, in theory, would protect the press. Nor does the record indicate that any of these legalistic words would have caused the courts below to set aside or to reduce the half-million-dollar verdict in any amount.

I agree with the Court that the Fourteenth Amendment made the First applicable to the States. [1] This means to me that, since the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, a State has no more power than the Federal Government to use a civil libel law or any other law to impose damages for merely discussing public affairs and criticizing public officials. The power of the United [p296] States to do that is, in my judgment, precisely nil. Such was the general view held when the First Amendment was adopted, and ever since. [2] Congress never has sought to challenge this viewpoint by passing any civil libel law. It did pass the Sedition Act in 1798, [3] which made it a crime — “seditious libel” — to criticize federal officials or the Federal Government. As the Court’s opinion correctly points out, however, ante, pp. 273-276, that Act came to an ignominious end and, by common consent, has generally been treated as having been a wholly unjustifiable and much to be regretted violation of the First Amendment. Since the First Amendment is now made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth, it no more permits the States to impose damages for libel than it does the Federal Government.

We would, I think, more faithfully interpret the First Amendment by holding that, at the very least, it leaves the people and the press free to criticize officials and discuss public affairs with impunity. This Nation of ours elects many of its important officials; so do the States, the municipalities, the counties, and even many precincts. These officials are responsible to the people for the way they perform their duties. While our Court has held that some kinds of speech and writings, such as “obscenity,” Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, and “fighting words,” Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, are not expression within the protection of the First Amendment, [4] freedom to discuss public affairs and public officials [p297] is unquestionably, as the Court today holds, the kind of speech the First Amendment was primarily designed to keep within the area of free discussion. To punish the exercise of this right to discuss public affairs or to penalize it through libel judgments is to abridge or shut off discussion of the very kind most needed. This Nation, I suspect, can live in peace without libel suits based on public discussions of public affairs and public officials. But I doubt that a country can live in freedom where its people can be made to suffer physically or financially for criticizing their government, its actions, or its officials.

For a representative democracy ceases to exist the moment that the public functionaries are by any means absolved from their responsibility to their constituents, and this happens whenever the constituent can be restrained in any manner from speaking, writing, or publishing his opinions upon any public measure, or upon the conduct of those who may advise or execute it. [5]

An unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs is what I consider to be the minimum guarantee of the First Amendment. [6]

I regret that the Court has stopped short of this holding indispensable to preserve our free press from destruction.


^1 . See cases collected in Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 530 (concurring opinion).

^2 . See, e.g., 1 Tucker, Blackstone’s Commentaries (1803), 297-299 (editor’s appendix). St. George Tucker, a distinguished Virginia jurist, took part in the Annapolis Convention of 1786, sat on both state and federal courts, and was widely known for his writings on judicial and constitutional subjects.

^3 . Act of July 14, 1798, 1 Stat. 596.

^4 . But see Smith v. California, 361 U.S. 147, 155 (concurring opinion); Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 508 (dissenting opinion).

^5 . 1 Tucker, Blackstone’s Commentaries (1803), 297 (editor’s appendix); cf. Brant, Seditious Libel: Myth and Reality, 39 N.Y.U.L.Rev. 1.

^6 . Cf. Meiklejohn, Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government (1948).

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