Month: April 2014

New York Times v. Sullivan: Civil Rights, Libel Law, and the Free Press by Hall (book review)

New York Times V. Sullivan Supreme court case began as a concern from Local Montgomery politicians that the New York Times misrepresented the south and challenged segregationists’ politics, and then became a test for the First Amendment. New York Times V. Sullivan: Civil Rights, Libel Law, and The Free Press by Kermit Hall and Melvin Urofksy examine the motivations of The New York times V. Sullivan case and it’s connection to the civil rights movement.  

            In 1960, Montgomery, Alabama feared the radical changes that the civil rights movement was demanding for. The city was becoming more segregated by class and race. The Ku Klux Klan was committing horrible acts of violence against African Americans and protesters that fought for civil rights. The Montgomery Police were using excessive violent force when dealing with protesters and enforcing segregationist laws. The Police Commissioner was Lester Bruce Sullivan. Sullivan was an ex-military policeman, religious fundamentalist and a member of the KKK.

            The event that lead to the libel suit was an advertisement in The New York Times that criticized the actions of the police’s response to protesters. On February 25, 1960, black students from Alabama State College demanded service at a snack bar at the Montgomery County Courthouse. The students were arrested and threatened with expulsion from college. Two days later, 800 students marched to protest the treatment of the first group of protesters. Sullivan used unofficial force and violence against the students and didn’t prevent Klansmen from attacking black students. The New York Times Responded with an advertisement called “Heed Their Rising Voices.” The advertisement criticized the treatment of the protesters by the police and the racism down south. It also exposed how the state tried to charge Martin Luther King Jr. for tax evasion in order to stop him for fighting for equal rights. The advertisement was created and inspired by the personal beliefs of the staff at the time.

            The New York Times editor was Turner Catledge, whom had a history of writing and publishing articles that demonized the KKK. Catledge believed that “the times should play a vital role in what he described as the Great Revolution” (Hall 18). He also supported the peaceful protesting style of King. The creator of the ad was John Murray, whom wanted the ad to make viewers have empathy for blacks down south. Grover Hall, the editor of the Advertiser, and Merton Nachman, libel attorney, were the two main actors in bringing about the court case. Hall noticed inaccuracy in the advertisement and “denounced the Times’s writers as ‘abolitionist hellmouths’ who propagated the big lie about the city’s racial conditions” (Hall 31). Nachman requested that Sullivan sue the New York Times for libel because the ad characterizes Sullivan’s policing policies as terrorism. He was concerned that the North would get a false representation of the South if the ad was not corrected. Sullivan, along with other local public officials, sued for libel and requested a retraction in the Times. The Times released a statement claiming that they didn’t intend to suggest that the Montgomery police was guilty of misconduct. After the retraction, the New York Time still had to go to court.

            In the state court, the New York Times lost to Sullivan because of Alabama’s libel laws and the Times didn’t fact check their ad. The Alabama court ruled in favor of Sullivan because the ad contained factual errors and the readers could infer that Sullivan as the police commissioner was responsible for the racist acts of violence. Under Alabama law, any factual errors qualify as defamatory. There wasn’t anything Louis Loeb, the New York Times lawyer, could do to win the case until it reached the US Supreme Court. The state court ruled that the Times was guilty and “for the defamation he suffered at their hands, the jury awarded L.B. Sullivan punitive damages in the full amount that he asked, 500,000 dollars” (Hall 68). The suit was intended to hurt the northern press and discourage them for covering civil rights abuses in the south.

            This ruling set a precedent for other northern media to have caution when reporting on activity in the south. It also set precedent for southern politicians to sue journalists for libel. Some reporters were hesitant to cover stories, but as conflict increased and the public favored civil rights and demonized the abuses more stories about civil rights appeared. As the stories continued being published, the libel suits continued to be pursued. The fear of libel suits causes the press to self –censor their publications because they don’t want to be punished by authorities. State control over libel laws is a form of censorship because they can use their power to determine what is or isn’t libel to punish the press for stories that challenge local administrations and policies. The purpose of the libel suits was to maintain segregation in the south and discredit publications that supported the civil rights movement. The aim was “silencing all who criticized and seek to change Alabama’s notorious political system of enforced segregation” (Hall 182).

Eric Embry was the New York Times’s lawyer that got the case appealed and defended the Times when the case reached the US Supreme Court. “He claimed that the advertisement was not directed at Sullivan, that it was not libelous per se, and that the plaintiff had failed to show that he had been in any way damaged” (Hall 98). He specialized in constitutional law and federalism. Embry argued that the Times was protected by the First Amendment and could criticize the government without fear of penalties. He stated that some of the information was incorrect, but the overall meaning of the advertisement was truthful. The city of Montgomery was going through serious and violent racial conflict and civil rights activists were being abused by police. Embry considered the 500,000 dollars giving to Sullivan to be “excessive considering that Sullivan had not even been mentioned by name” (Hall 113).

The Supreme Court decided to take up the case because it questioned if Alabama’s state libel laws violated the constitution or not. The court case began on January 6th, 1964, which was four years after the advertisement ran in the times. The Chief Justice was Earl Warren, whom was responsible for over 15 rulings in the 1960s that made progress toward equality. Roland Nachman was confident that he would win the case based on the idea that states have the right to make their own libel laws and that the advertisement contained factual errors. The times couldn’t deny that there were errors. But, Nachman couldn’t prove that it was attacking Sullivan. His main defense was that “the ad mentioned the police, and Sullivan served as commissioner in charge of the police, then anything said about the police should be interpreted as an attack on him” (Hall 149). Nachman argued that Sullivan asked for a retraction about himself and the New York Times never published one. The Times never retracted anything about Sullivan because they never mentioned him by name, made his argument invalid. Embry explained that it couldn’t be considered libel because Nachman’s witnesses that testified that it was libel didn’t believe any of the accusations of Sullivan. Since no one believed that Sullivan was abusing civil rights, he can’t claim any damages. The New York Times did issues a retraction stating that some of the information was incorrect and the court Justices agreed that “a reporter or editor has every reason to believe true and later discovers it is in error” ( Hall 157).

On March 9th, 1964, the US Supreme Court ruled, 9 to 0, in favor of the New York Times. The ruling created a new precedent that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, about the conduct of public officials as long as the statements are made without actual malice. The official statement by Chief Justice Warren was “We hold that the rule of the Law applied by the Alabama courts is constitutionally deficient for failure to provide the safeguards for freedom of speech and press that are required by the First and Fourth Amendments in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct” (Hall 172). Nachman failed to prove actual malice against Sullivan. The ad questioned “what kind of commissioner you are,” which is an issue of public concern and protected under the First Amendment (Hall 164). The Court Justice William Brennan stated that the ad “communicated information and opinion on a public matter” and the evidence was “insufficient to support a finding of actual malice” (Hall 166). The Court Justices understood that the racial politics that motivated the New York Times to publish the advertisement and for southern politicians to file Libel law suits. They understood the importance of the ruling because they knew that there were other libel charges pending against the Times and other publications from Alabama. Brennan believed that the New York Times “communicated information, expressed opinions, recited grievances, protested claimed abuses, and sought finical support on behalf of a movement who existence and objectives are matters of the highest public concern” (Hall 173). He believed that editorial journalism was essential to the US’s democracy. Editorial articles are a platform for citizens to exercise their right of free speech and feel like their voice is being heard. Court Justice Hugo Black also believed that the case was about racial politics and that Nachman wasn’t concerned with libel. Black said, “many people, including some public officials, to continue state commanded segregation of races in public schools and other public places, despite our several holdings that such state practice is forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment. Montgomery is one of the localities in which widespread hostility to desegregation has been manifested” (Hall 180). The New York Times had made progress for the First Amendment, and allowed coverage of the civil rights movement and civil rights abuses without fear of punishment from the government.



Work Cited


Hall, Kermit L., and Melvin I. Urofsky. New York Times v. Sullivan: Civil Rights, Libel Law, and the Free Press. Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas, 2011. Print.


Charlotte Turner Smith’s The Swallow & Love and Folly.

Charlotte Turner Smith wrote her poem The Swallow in 1797. The main theme of the poem is about the beauty and mystery of nature. The narrator describes the unknown migration path of a Swallow as an escape to exotic places. The narrator uses events, diction, imagery, and symbols to express the theme.

The main event in The Swallow is the narrator looking at the swallow on a spring day. The narrator listens to the bird, “let my ear your music catch,” and wonders where the bird came from? The narrator is curious of where the bird has traveled and is jealous of the bird’s freedom to fly away. The narrator thinks “I wish I did his power possess, That I might learn, fleet bird, from thee, What our vain systems only guess, And know from what wide Wilderness You came across the sea.” Another line that suggest that the narrator desire for agency to escape is the imagery of “I saw her dash with rapid wings.” The words dash and rapid imply speed and control in the bird’s movement. “In Afric” and “in Asia” symbolizes exotic places that the bird could have visited and places the narrator wants to escape to. In the view of the narrator the possibilities of where the bird could fly are endless and mysterious. “I would enquire how journeying long, The vast and pathless ocean o’er.” The narrator thinks about what she would communicate with the bird if they could communicate. Birds travel to warm locations when the winter comes. The narrator fined this beautiful as well. “Thus lost to life, what favouring dream Bids you to happier hour awake; And tells, that dancing in the beam.” These lines suggest that the birds have a happy and free life because they don’t experience the cold harsh winters that the narrator does. The idea that birds don’t experience cold winters symbolizes that the birds are untouched by pain and suffering. The beam is a symbol of light, warmth and happiness. The last stanza of the poem is a comment on the limits on science in understanding nature. “Alas! How little can be known, Her sacred veil where nature draws; let baffled Science humbly own, Her mysteries understood alone, By Him who gives her laws.” The narrator is expressing the mysteries of nature can’t by explain by nature because the freedom and innocence of the bird was given to the bird by God. He is a reference to God and describing science as humble shows that science is limited in its explanations.

The focus on a Swallow symbolizes the narrator’s and Smith’s desire for freedom and happiness. Smith suffered from depression her entire adult life and desired happiness. The migrating bird that only experiences happiness could be a symbol for Smith’s personal desire for happiness in her own life. Charlotte Smith was a feminist that rejected the idea of domestic felicity. The freedom of the bird and it’s happiness dependent on its freedom could be a symbol of Smith’s rejection of the idea the women should gain happiness from staying in the home. Smith wanted to have the happiness and freedom she identified in the bird.

Charlotte Smith wrote the poem Love and Folly about the foolishness and suffering that is part of falling in love. She used allusion to roman mythology to express the theme of the foolishness of love. There are many references to cupid in the poem with the lines of “ill thrown, yet resistless darts,” “thoughtless child,” and “mischievous malignant boy.” These character description make cupid a careless match maker that doesn’t know or care what he is doing to people. “Hapless mortals can’t withstand them,” (Cupid’s arrows). The narrator believes that everyone will be affected by cupid. The narrator believes that Cupid wasn’t always so careless, “once less cruel and perverse.” The narrator believes that love will turn to suffering, “Loud and more loud the quarrels grow…For Folly’s rage is prompt to rise.” Cupid is matching up carelessly and love turns into hate. A suffering Venus, goddess of love, prays to the God of the gods, Jove, to kill Cupid. “The wild with anguish Venus pray’d, For vengeance on the idiot’s head, And begg’d of cloud-compelling Jove, His swiftest lightening, to destroy, The mischievous malignant boy That blinded love.” Venus believed that Cupid had destroyed love by forcing it on people and making love blind. Jove denied Venus’s request and Cupid continues to strike people with his arrows and make them fall in love. Jove said, “For Love, tho blind, will reign around The world.” The foolishness of love will remain and lovers will quarrel. Another theme of the poem, which is related to Smith’s life, is that people get trapped in harmful relationships. Smith was in an abusive marriage. Cupid traps people in love matches by careless shooting his love darts and these relationships start of good, but then become toxic. This idea could be a personal reflection of Smith’s own ideas about love and marriage. Smith could identify with Venus and her prayer for the freeing of victims of Cupid and the death of foolish and harmful relationships.

Charlotte Turner Smith

Charlotte Turner Smith wrote romantic poetry, gothic fiction and political novels. She was born on May 4th, 1749 and died on October 28th, 1806. Smith had three books of poetry published in the late 1700s and early 1800s. She also wrote novels and children books. She had liberal political beliefs and supported the French Revolution. Charlotte Smith suffered from depression and anxiety due to her life circumstances. She married Benjamin Smith, who was unreliable finically and acted violently towards her. Her family sold her to him at the age of 15. He was the son of slave owning West India merchant. Due to the physical violence, she legally separated from her husband in 1787. She wrote to gain respect and financial security. Smith referred to her writing as slavery because she felt like she needed to work to survive. She lost her first 3 children and only had one surviving child. The death of her children before their birth was a source of melancholy that her poems are known for. Mary Wollstonecraft criticized Smith for copying other’s work, which was popular during the romantic era. She claimed that Smith imitated neoclassical art in order to be successful.
Smith’s depression caused her desire for privacy and solitude. She believed solitude was a state worth cultivating. She claimed that some of her poems were never meant to be published because they were products of her melancholy personal moments. Her personal poems were about memories, meditative states, dreams, sexuality and madness. She believed that poems were results of the body’s lived experiences. Smith used imagery of the heart to examine sensibility and sympathy in the human experience. She was heartbroken and lonely throughout her life, but was aware of others’ suffering. She believed that the poet could only rely on poetry and nature.

Smith, like Wordsworth, was known for her style of hybrid poems. She combined lyrical ballads and elegiac sonnets. . She created a new form of poetry. Smith would write an elegiac sonnet and conclude with a lyrical ballad. She used 14 lines with a single sentiment knowing that readers that read well would understand. She mixed rhyme schemes and structures.
Charlotte Smith was politically radical and supported the French Revolution. Smith believed in the revolution for potential for social transformation and freeing the culture from the bondage of tradition and prejudices. She believed women play an important role in forming a democracy because women are disenfranchised, along with the lower class. She believed the French Revolution came out of anger at the crimes of France against its own people and saw the British Monarchy committing the same crimes. Smith was against the institutional hierarchy of privilege and power. She desired major political and social reform.
Charlotte Smith was a feminist and was influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the rights of woman. Smith believed that she was creating a space for women’s political opinions by writing. She published her work to raise public awareness for issues she believed in and promote revolutionary politics. Her writing addressed issues of liberty, justice, and national identity. She wrote about the connection of public and private space and it’s relation to the suffering of woman. Smith believed woman’s suffering came from external factors opposed to internal factors. Her feminist writings focused on the idea of domestic felicity. She disagreed with the idea that woman should find bliss in taking care of the home because a woman’s bliss is destroyed by economic and political violence, and physical violence committed against woman by husbands. Her experiences with sexual violence caused her depression and influenced her writing.
Smith was a humanist. She conceptualized human nature over cultural limitations of nationalism. Smith believed that the power of human sentiment could be more powerful that governments and religion, and could transcend past boarders. But, she also acknowledged the duel nature of exile and liberty in being a citizen of the world. Over time, she became very pessimistic about the state of political justice in Britain. She idealized nature and dreamed of alternative, utopian, multicultural communities. Smith criticized the creation patriarchal hierarchies and slave economies in the New World because it was a failure to escape oppression.