New York Times Co vs. Sullivan is a landmark Supreme Court case that occurred in 1964. This case established the actual malice standard which says that the plaintiff in a defamation or libel case must prove that the publisher of the statement in question knew that the statement was false, or disregarded its truth or falsity. This puts an extremely high burden of proof on the plaintiff and makes it difficult to prove the defendant’s knowledge. Because of the high burden of proof, cases like this (especially those involving public figures) rarely win.
In 1960, the New York Times ran a full page advertisement speaking out against an Alabama perjury indictment and in favor of Martin Luther King Jr. The advertisement also listed inaccurate criticism of the Alabama police. Montgomery Public Safety commissioner L.B. Sullivan considered these statements to be defamatory even though he was not specifically named in the advertisement. He sued the Times for libel and won $500,000 in an Alabama court. However when the case got to the Supreme Court, it ruled in favor of the Times 9-0 and said that the newspaper had the freedom of the press and said that there was no proof of actual malice.
This case is so important because it upholds our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and press. The court ruling said that “the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are made with actual malice (with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity).”
The 50th anniversary of this case occurred just a few weeks ago. March 9th, 1964 was the day that the decision of New York Times Co vs. Sullivan was reached. It is amazing that such a case occurred 50 years ago and it is still relevant to our judicial system today. In my Media Law and Ethics course last semester, we went over this case thoroughly in regards to its importance to the rights in the First Amendment. This shows that although it is 50 years old this year, this landmark case is still as important as ever. The Times released an article about the case on the anniversary which you can read here.