Actual Malice Given Constitutional Significance After Sullivan Ruling

The Supreme Court voted 9-0 against the Alabama court’s decision that found the law applied was found constitutionally deficient for failure to provide safeguards for freedom of speech and of the press, as required by the First and Fourteenth Amendment. This decision provided states that even with the proper safeguards, the evidence presented in this case was insufficient to support a judgement for Sullivan. This case has gone to show that the law should, and will protect the media from criminal libel and malice if the situation is deemed correct.

On March 29, 1960, the New York Times printed a full-page advertisement titled “Heed Their Rising Voices”, paid for by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South”. This advertisement re-created actions that were happening towards civil rights protesters, some of them inaccurately, including the police force in the city of Montgomery, Alabama. One of the fallacies that was listed in the advertisement referred to the local police and how, “They have arrested (King) seven times” when in fact he had been arrested four times.

L.B. Sullivan, the Montgomery Public Safety commissioner was not named in the advertisement specifically. He was subject to inaccurate criticism of actions by the police and considered this to be defamation by the New York Times as well. This was his highly considered true because of his duty to supervise the police department. After being denied recovery of punitive damages by Alabama law in a libel action, Sullivan sent a request for a written demand for a public retraction and if the Times did not retract their statements. They did not retract statements about Sullivan, rather they sent out an advertisement upon the demand Governor John Patterson of Alabama, who also alleged him with “grave misconduct and improper actions and omissions as Governor of Alabama and ex efficio chairman of the State Board of Education of Alabama.”

In a statement, why the Times did not retract their advertisement against Sullivan, rather went after the Governor of the state, their secretary said this:

“We did that because we didn’t want anything that was published by the Times to be a reflection on the State of Alabama and the Governor was, as far as we could see, the embodiment of the State of Alabama and the proper representative of the state and, furthermore, we had by that time learned more of the actual facts which the ad purported to recite and, finally, the ad did refer to the action of the state authorities and the Board of Education and presumably of which the Governor is the ex officio chairman….”

Because all justices of the Supreme Court voted in favor of the New York Times, there was not a publicized dissent, rather a few concurring statements and the overall opinion of the court. Actual Malice was taken into legal context and was the focus of this case. This phrase refers to knowledge or reckless lack of investigation, rather than its ordinary meaning of malicious intent.

Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the court and said, “Although neither of these statements mentions respondent by name, he contended that the word “police” in the third paragraph referred to him as the Montgomery Commissioner who supervised the police department, so that he was being accused of “ringing” the campus with police”.

Justice Brennan continued to state that, “We think it common knowledge that the average person knows that municipal agents, such as police and firemen, and other, are under the control and direction of the city governing body, and, more particularly, under the direction and control of a single commissioner. In measuring the performance or deficiencies of such groups, praise or criticism is usually attached to the official in complete control of the body.”

He added, “Because of the importance of the constitutional issues involved, we granted the separate petitions for certiorari of the individual petitioners and of the Times. We revers the judgement. We hold that the rule of law applied by the Alabama courts is constitutionally deficient for failure to provide safeguards for freedom of speech and of the press that are required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct. We further hold that, under the proper safeguards, the evidence presented in this case in constitutionally insufficient to support the judgement for respondent. “

In concurrence of the opinion, both Justice Black and Justice Goldberg delivered their own concurrence statements. Justice Black started off by saying, “I base my vote to reverse on the belief that the First and Fourteenth Amendments not merely “delimit” a State’s power to award damages to “public officials against critics of their official conduct,” but completely prohibit a State from exercising such a power. The Court goes on to hold that a State can subject such critics to damages if “actual malice” can be proved against them. “Malice,” even as defined by the Court, is an elusive, abstract concept, hard to prove and hard to disprove. The requirement that malice be proved provides, at best, an evanescent protection for the right critically to discuss public affairs, and certainly does not measure up to the sturdy safeguard embodied in the First Amendment. Unlike the Court, therefore, I vote to reverse exclusively on the ground that the Times and the individual defendants had an absolute, unconditional constitutional right to publish in the Times advertisement their criticisms of the Montgomery agencies and officials.”

Continuing with his concurrence, Justice Black said, “The half-million-dollar verdict does give dramatic proof, however, that state libel laws threaten the very existence of an American press virile enough to publish unpopular views on public affairs and bold enough to criticize the conduct of public officials. The factual background of this case emphasizes the imminence and enormity of that threat. One of the acute and highly emotional issues in this country arises out of efforts of many people, even including some public officials, to continue state-commanded segregation of races in the public schools and other public places despite our several holdings that such a state practice is forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment. Montgomery is one of the localities in which widespread hostility to desegregation has been manifested. This hostility has sometimes extended itself to persons who favor desegregation, particularly to so-called “outside agitators,” a term which can be made to fit papers like the Times, which is published in New York. The scarcity of testimony to show that Commissioner Sullivan suffered any actual damages at all suggests that these feelings of hostility had at least as much to do with rendition of this half-million-dollar verdict as did an appraisal of damages.

Sharing his concurrence with the court’s decision, Justice Goldberg said, “It has been recognized that “prosecutions for libel on government have [no] place in the American system of jurisprudence.” City of Chicago v. Tribune Co., 307 Ill. 595, 601, 139 N.E. 86, 88. I fully agree. Government, however, is not an abstraction; it is made up of individuals — of governors responsible to the governed. In a democratic society, where men are free by ballots to remove those in power, any statement critical of governmental action is necessarily “of and concerning” the governors, and any statement critical of the governors’ official conduct is necessarily “of and concerning” the government. If the rule that libel on government has no place in our Constitution is to have real meaning, then libel on the official conduct of the governors likewise can have no place in our Constitution.”

In addition to his statement, Justice Goldberg also shared that, “This is not to say that the Constitution protects defamatory statements directed against the private conduct of a public official or private citizen. Freedom of press and of speech insures that government will respond to the will of the people, and that changes may be obtained by peaceful means. Purely private defamation has little to do with the political ends of a self-governing society. The imposition of liability for private defamation does not abridge the freedom of public speech or any other freedom protected by the First Amendment. This, of course, cannot be said where public officials are concerned, or where public matters are involved.”

Because of this case, the Supreme Court has officially adopted the term “actual malice” giving it constitutional significance. This case will go down in history as a time when the constitution was challenged and our appointed officials took the time to study further and share the true meaning behind the First and Fourteenth Amendment we all as Americans have.


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