New York Times v. Sullivan

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New York Times v. Sullivan
Court Supreme Court of the United States
Date decided March 9, 1964
Appealed from Alabama Supreme Court
Cited by
Cohen v. Cowles Media (1991)


In 1960, a civil rights organization took out a page of advertisement in the New York Times. The ad accuses the opponents of civil rights of a "wave of terror." Namely, the Montgomery Police Department in Alabama was accused of targeting MLK with intimidation such as "They have arrested him 7 times-for “speeding.” “loitering”.

The Alabama police countered that there were false and inaccurate statements in the advertisement because the Alabama police never pad-locked the Alabama State College dining hall to starve the students, never arrested MLK 7 times for speeding, and so on. Other claims were exaggerated. Therefore, the article defamed the Alabama police departments.

Sullivan, the Montgomery police commissioner, objected to the defamatory piece.

Procedural History

Sullivan sued The New York Times in Alabama state court for libel. (Libel is defamatory writing while slander is defamatory spoken words.) The trial judge ruled in Sullivan's favor.

The Alabama Supreme Court concurred that Sullivan's reputation and that of his police department had been damaged. It found in favor of Sullivan.


Can a public official bring a defamation suit for false statements concerning public issues?


The 1st Amendment protects defamation of public officials.


Brennan reasoned that public debates may include false information.


If a public official can show "actual malice" in addition to defamation, then the official may prevail on a defamation claim. (This standard of burden is unrealistically hard to meet.)