Unformatted text preview: MEDIA LAW CLASS
NOVEMBER 8, 2018 Marquis Hughes
November 8 ,2018 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan 1964
Had it not been for the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in 1964, journalism might not be
what it is today. During the 1960’s, an American literary movement had increased the boundaries
of traditional journalism and nonfiction writing, known as New Journalism. The New Journalism
had shown the arrangements and values of an “institutionally situated approach to the history of
literary journalism.” Around this time, it raised a lot of different commentary and it was worth
having disputes over. During the 60’s, there were important records that documented the various
marketing strategies of magazines such as Esquire, New York and Harper’s. The relationships
between its writers, editors, readers and publishers, made it easier to learn about the
organizational processes that put the stories into print. “This was also a response to a broader
interpretive crisis in the journalism profession that was decades in the making. The New
Journalism was the product of many forces, including changes in the media marketplace,
reporters’ dissatisfaction with newspaper careers, collaborations between talented writers and
visionary editors, and a sustained epoch of social dislocation that made understanding public life
an urgent task for writers, readers, and publications”, said John Pauly. Using New Journalism as
an example provides us to rethink how to approach the history of literary journalism more. New
Journalism and newspapers had changed with the landmark case New York Times Co. v.
Sullivan. The New York Times and Company, NYT, formerly known as the New York Daily
Times, founded on September 18,1851. The founders were banker, George Jones along with
journalist and politician, Henry Jarvis Raymond. The New York Times is a morning daily
newspaper that is published in New York City. “The Times was established in 1851 as a penny
paper that would avoid sensationalism and report the news in a restrained and objective fashion.”
Penny Paper received its name because of the cost. There were two types of papers. The political
paper, which was financed by political parties but mainly political candidates running for office
and the commercial paper, were managed by the merchant. Both papers were sold if you had a
subscription and both papers carried information about other newspaper companies and
individuals. Sometimes, editors would talk about their viewpoints printed in the newspapers. “It
enjoyed early success as its editors set a pattern for the future by appealing to
a cultured, intellectual readership instead of a mass audience. But its high moral tone was no
asset in the heated competition of other papers for readers in New York City. Despite price
increases, the Times was losing $1,000 a week when Adolph Simon Ochs bought it in 1896”,
stated Britannica.com. Adolph had built the New York Times into a global respected daily. As a
result, they have won over 100 Pulitzer Prizes since established.
Lester Bruce Sullivan, born in Vanceburg, Kentucky, was a former Alabama Prison
Commissioner, Alabama Public Safety Director and Montgomery Police and Fire Commissioner.
During the Civil Rights movement in the mid-20th century, the New York Times
published and printed a full-page editorial advertisement, paid for by civil right activists, titled
“Heed Their Rising Voices”, for supporting donations to defend Martin Luther King Jr. on
perjury charges. The advertisement was placed by an ad hoc coalition of civil right leaders called
the “Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South.” The ad contained false statements and some claims were inaccurate such as, “King had been arrested
four times, not seven, and he faced seven years of incarceration for perjury, not 10, Nine student
leaders were expelled, not for singing at the state capitol, but rather for demanding service at a
Montgomery courthouse lunch counter and the students at one demonstration sang “The StarSpangled Banner,” not “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, stated rcfp.org.
Within the advertisement, it contained “minor factual inaccuracies” including the number
of times Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested. Further actions were taken by the
Montgomery, Alabama police. Sullivan had felt that the criticism had an effect on him, even
thought his name was not mentioned in the advertisement. He then sends the New York Times a
request to publicly abjure the information. The New York Times had refused to take Sullivan’s
request the first time. The New York Times ad staff had not checked the validity of the
statements in the advertisement before publishing the paper. Sullivan then began to sue for the
“alleged” inaccurate comments from the police, even though he was not named. He filed his libel
action against the New York Times. Sullivan argued that the ad had damaged his reputation and
had been libeled. In the Alabama court, Sullivan won his case and the New York Times had to
pay $500,000 in damages. The New York Times had appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme
Court. The newspaper claimed that they did not know it was false statements and did not chek if
they were accurate or not. The New York Times “argued that if a newspaper had to check the
accuracy of every criticism of every public official, a free press would be severely limited.
The New York Times later then removed and took the advertisements down because the
Alabama Governor, John Patterson had demanded him to. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, on March 9, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
unanimously (9–0) reversed the decision, ruling that Sullivan could not recover damages. For
a libel suit to be successful, the complainant has to prove that the offending statement was made
with actual malice.
Rule of law in the case. “Application by state courts of a rule of law, whether statutory or
not, to award a judgment in a civil action, is "state action" under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Expression does not lose constitutional protection to which it would otherwise be entitled
because it appears in the form of a paid advertisement. Factual error, content defamatory of
official reputation, or both, are insufficient to warrant an award of damages for false statements
unless "actual malice" -- knowledge that statements are false or in reckless disregard of the truth
-- is alleged and proved. State court judgment entered upon a general verdict which does not
differentiate between punitive damages, as to which, under state law, actual malice must be
proved, and general damages, as to which it is "presumed," precludes any determination as to the
basis of the verdict, and requires reversal, where presumption of malice is inconsistent with
federal constitutional requirements” states Chris Skelton, supremejustia.com.
“The case involved an advertisement that appeared in The New York Times in March
1960 that outlined how African Americans had been oppressed and that asked readers to
contribute money to the struggle to end racial segregation in the South. The Court said the right
to publish all statements is protected under the First Amendment. The Court also said in order to
prove libel, a public official must show that what was said against them was made with actual
malice – "that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth”, states
the uscourts.gov. To sustain a claim of defamation or libel, the First Amendment requires that the
plaintiff show that the defendant knew that a statement was false or was reckless in deciding to publish the information without investigating whether it was accurate. “The Court reasoned that
free and open debate about the conduct of public officials was more important than occasional,
honest factual errors that might hurt or damage officials’ reputations. Some students will agree,
citing the chilling effect it would have on a free press if newspapers had to check the veracity of
all statements about public officials, even those in paid advertisements. The first amendment
prevents prior restraint but does not protect newspapers from being punished if they print
falsehoods. The first amendment protects all criticism of public officials, even those criticisms
leveled with “actual malice”, said Justice Hugo Black.
This case clarified the First Amendment protection over speech with regards to public
concern. Resolving the disagreement in Alabama extended beyond opinion statements that
proved to be false. Coming to that conclusion, the Supreme Court gave protections to defendants
such as newspapers and other media sources by raising the burden of proof required for plaintiffs
in libel claims. Citations:
1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “The New York Times.” Encyclopædia
Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Nov. 2018,
2. Journals.sagepub.com. (2018). SAGE Journals: Your gateway to world-class journal
research. [online] Available at:
[Accessed 8 Nov.
3. Justia Law. (2018). New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). [online]
Available at: [Accessed 8 Nov.
4. United States Courts. (2018). New York Times v. Sullivan Podcast. [online] Available
at: [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].
5. Media Law 19e
6. Justia Law. (2018). New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). [online]
Available at: [Accessed 8 Nov.
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