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.


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