New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)

On March 29, 1960, the New York Times ran an ad to defend Martin Luther King, Jr. from an Alabama perjury indictment. To solicit funds, the ad included details of police actions against participants in a civil rights demonstration. In response, Montgomery Commissioner L.B. Sullivan filed a libel suit. The Supreme Court ruled that, unless the public figure can prove actual malice, the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press. These words are from the unanimous opinion written by William Brennan. Read the full text here.
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definitions & notes only words
  1. libel
    a false and malicious publication
    We are required in this case to determine for the first time the extent to which the constitutional protections for speech and press limit a State's power to award damages in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct.
  2. impute
    attribute to a cause or source
    He further claimed that the paragraph would be read as imputing to the police, and hence to him, the padlocking of the dining hall in order to starve the students into submission.
  3. implicate
    bring into intimate and incriminating connection
    Although Dr. King's home had, in fact, been bombed twice when his wife and child were there, both of these occasions antedated respondent's tenure as Commissioner, and the police were not only not implicated in the bombings, but had made every effort to apprehend those who were.
  4. forfeit
    lose the right to or lose by some error, offense, or crime
    To avoid placing such a handicap upon the freedoms of expression, we hold that, if the allegedly libelous statements would otherwise be constitutionally protected from the present judgment, they do not forfeit that protection because they were published in the form of a paid advertisement.
  5. pecuniary
    relating to or involving money
    Respondent made no effort to prove that he suffered actual pecuniary loss as a result of the alleged libel.
  6. per se
    with respect to its inherent nature
    The trial judge submitted the case to the jury under instructions that the statements in the advertisement were "libelous per se," and were not privileged, so that petitioners might be held liable if the jury found that they had published the advertisement and that the statements were made "of and concerning" respondent.
  7. privileged
    not subject to usual rules or penalties
    The trial judge submitted the case to the jury under instructions that the statements in the advertisement were "libelous per se," and were not privileged, so that petitioners might be held liable if the jury found that they had published the advertisement and that the statements were made "of and concerning" respondent.
  8. contempt
    lack of respect accompanied by a feeling of intense dislike
    Under Alabama law, as applied in this case, a publication is "libelous per se" if the words "tend to injure a person...in his reputation" or to "bring him into public contempt"; the trial court stated that the standard was met if the words are such as to "injure him in his public office, or impute misconduct to him in his office, or want of official integrity, or want of fidelity to a public trust...."
  9. mitigation
    the action of lessening in severity or intensity
    Good motives and belief in truth do not negate an inference of malice, but are relevant only in mitigation of punitive damages if the jury chooses to accord them weight.
  10. damage
    any harm resulting from a violation of a legal right
    Good motives and belief in truth do not negate an inference of malice, but are relevant only in mitigation of punitive damages if the jury chooses to accord them weight.
  11. liability
    an obligation to pay money to another party
    The question before us is whether this rule of liability, as applied to an action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct, abridges the freedom of speech and of the press that is guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
  12. epithet
    a defamatory or abusive word or phrase
    In deciding the question now, we are compelled by neither precedent nor policy to give any more weight to the epithet "libel" than we have to other "mere labels" of state law.
  13. immunity
    the quality of being unaffected by something
    Like insurrection, contempt, advocacy of unlawful acts, breach of the peace, obscenity, solicitation of legal business, and the various other formulae for the repression of expression that have been challenged in this Court, libel can claim no talismanic immunity from constitutional limitations.
  14. responsive
    readily reacting or replying to people or events or stimuli
    The maintenance of the opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes may be obtained by lawful means, an opportunity essential to the security of the Republic, is a fundamental principle of our constitutional system.
  15. eschew
    avoid and stay away from deliberately
    Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law—the argument of force in its worst form.
  16. repression
    control by holding down
    Like insurrection, contempt, advocacy of unlawful acts, breach of the peace, obscenity, solicitation of legal business, and the various other formulae for the repression of expression that have been challenged in this Court, libel can claim no talismanic immunity from constitutional limitations.
  17. tyranny
    dominance through threat of punishment and violence
    Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.
  18. caustic
    harsh or corrosive in tone
    Thus, we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.
  19. exaggeration
    making to seem more important than it really is
    To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement.
  20. vilification
    slanderous defamation
    To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement.
  21. enlightened
    having knowledge and spiritual insight
    But the people of this nation have ordained, in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy.
  22. advert
    make reference to
    If we advert to the nature of Republican Government, we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people.
  23. remit
    release from (claims, debts, or taxes)
    Jefferson, as President, pardoned those who had been convicted and sentenced under the Act and remitted their fines, stating:
  24. sedition
    an illegal action inciting resistance to lawful authority
    I discharged every person under punishment or prosecution under the sedition law because I considered, and now consider, that law to be a nullity, as absolute and as palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image.
  25. turpitude
    a corrupt or depraved or degenerate act or practice
    Alabama, for example, has a criminal libel law which subjects to prosecution "any person who speaks, writes, or prints of and concerning another any accusation falsely and maliciously importing the commission by such person of a felony, or any other indictable offense involving moral turpitude," and which allows as punishment upon conviction a fine not exceeding $500 and a prison sentence of six months.
  26. pall
    a sudden numbing dread
    Whether or not a newspaper can survive a succession of such judgments, the pall of fear and timidity imposed upon those who would give voice to public criticism is an atmosphere in which the First Amendment freedoms cannot survive.
  27. adduce
    advance evidence for
    Even courts accepting this defense as an adequate safeguard have recognized the difficulties of adducing legal proofs that the alleged libel was true in all its factual particulars.
  28. malice
    the desire to see others suffer
    The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with "actual malice"—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
  29. inconvenience
    an unwanted discomfort
    The importance to the state and to society of such discussions is so vast, and the advantages derived are so great, that they more than counterbalance the inconvenience of private persons whose conduct may be involved, and occasional injury to the reputations of individuals must yield to the public welfare, although at times such injury may be great.
  30. defame
    charge falsely or with malicious intent
    In such a case the occasion gives rise to a privilege, qualified to this extent: any one claiming to be defamed by the communication must show actual malice or go remediless.
  31. preference
    a predisposition in favor of something
    It would give public servants an unjustified preference over the public they serve, if critics of official conduct did not have a fair equivalent of the immunity granted to the officials themselves.
  32. remand
    refer a matter or legal case back to another authority
    Because of this uncertainty, the judgment must be reversed and the case remanded.
  33. cavalier
    showing a lack of concern or seriousness
    The statement by the Times' Secretary that, apart from the padlocking allegation...affords no constitutional warrant for the Alabama Supreme Court's conclusion that it was a cavalier ignoring of the falsity of the advertisement [from which] the jury could not have but been impressed with the bad faith of The Times, and its maliciousness inferable therefrom.
  34. reckless
    marked by defiant disregard for danger or consequences
    Even assuming that they could constitutionally be found to have authorized the use of their names on the advertisement, there was no evidence whatever that they were aware of any erroneous statements or were in any way reckless in that regard. The judgment against them is thus without constitutional support.
  35. impeach
    challenge the honesty or veracity of
    The statement does not indicate malice at the time of the publication; even if the advertisement was not "substantially correct"—although respondent's own proofs tend to show that it was—that opinion was at least a reasonable one, and there was no evidence to impeach the witness' good faith in holding it.
  36. retract
    formally reject or disavow
    The Times' failure to retract upon respondent's demand, although it later retracted upon the demand of Governor Patterson, is likewise not adequate evidence of malice for constitutional purposes.
  37. negligence
    failure to act with the prudence of a reasonable person
    We think the evidence against the Times supports, at most, a finding of negligence in failing to discover the misstatements, and is constitutionally insufficient to show the recklessness that is required for a finding of actual malice.
  38. demur
    politely refuse or take exception to
    That court, in holding that the trial court "did not err in overruling the demurrer [of the Times] in the aspect that the libelous matter was not of and concerning the [plaintiff,]" based its ruling on the proposition...
  39. transmute
    change or alter in form, appearance, or nature
    The present proposition would sidestep this obstacle by transmuting criticism of government, however impersonal it may seem on its face, into personal criticism, and hence potential libel, of the officials of whom the government is composed.
  40. critic
    anyone who expresses a reasoned judgment of something
    Raising as it does the possibility that a good faith critic of government will be penalized for his criticism, the proposition relied on by the Alabama courts strikes at the very center of the constitutionally protected area of free expression.
Created on February 23, 2017 (updated September 11, 2019)

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