New York Times v Sullivan

Rie Okawara

Basic Facts

New York Times ran an advertisement for civil right activists that openly criticized the police department in Montgomery, Alabama for their treatment of protesters. Some statements were false and police commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, filed a libel action against New York Times, claiming that it damaged his reputation. Alabama court ruled in favor of Sullivan and NY Times took its case to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Did Alabama's libel law, by not requiring Sullivan to prove that an advertisement personally harmed him and dismissing the same as untruthful due to factual errors, unconstitutionally infringe on the First Amendment's freedom of speech and freedom of press protections?


The Court held that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, except when statements are made with actual malice (with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity).
New York Times v Sullivan

Historic Significance

This court case established the concept of actual malice standard which required the plaintiff to prove hat the publisher was aware that the statement was false. It also opened up many opportunities for new sources to print stories about civil right stories without fear of being dragged in a libel suit.

Significance Today

This case is still applicable today in that it allows journalists, the press, and the public to exercise their freedom of speech and freedom of press without the fear of being sued. This provides opportunity for people to openly criticize public figures.

Future Significance

This will still be applicable in the future because the press plays a vital role in informing the public and fostering debate and discussion of public issues and public officials. This case provides "breathing space" for the press to discuss national issues.