Torts II, Pages 922–928

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

Supreme Court of the United States, 1964

Facts:

Petitioners published a full-page advertisement describing the oppression of black people in the South. Multiple paragraphs described how the Montgomery Police Department, which respondent supervises as commissioner, abused Martin Luther King Jr. and other protesters. However, these statements were largely false.

Procedural History:

Trial court found that the statements were libelous per se and not privileged.

Issue:

Can a public official recover for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct?

Judgment:

Reversed and remanded.

Reasoning:

  • The constitutional protections of the First Amendment do not depend upon the truth of the statement. It should instead be concerned with whether the person had "actual malice."

  • Petitioners were not aware of any errors in the advertisement and they were not reckless in that regard. Neither was the Times, even though it did not initially retract it, because it had reasonable doubt as to whether the advertisement referred to respondent and because it did not flatly refuse but merely asked for an explanation and retracted it when someone else provided one.

  • The advertisement did not reference respondent directly or by position; it only occasionally referred to the police that he supervised. It cannot be said that it was "of and concerning" respondent.

Rule/Holding:

A public official cannot recover for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with "actual malice".

Explanation:

Making a statement with "actual malice" means making it with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.