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The Supreme Court

Focusing on Personal Rights

I've given you an overview of some of the key cases decided during the Warren Court. His court reviewed many more cases guaranteeing individual rights. These included freedom of press, speech, and religion in addition to the rulings on desegregation and criminal proceedings.

One landmark ruling involving freedom of the press during the Warren Court was New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in 1964. The Court ruled that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, a state court cannot award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehoods relating to his or her official conduct unless the official can prove actual malice.

Court Connotations

Actual malice is a statement that was made with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard to whether or not it was true or false.

L.B. Sullivan was one of three people elected commissioner of the City of Montgomery, Alabama. His responsibilities included supervision of the police department. On March 29, 1960 The New York Times printed a full-page advertisement entitled, “Heed the Rising Voices,” about the civil rights movement in Alabama. Sullivan sued four Alabama clergymen and the Times for damages alleging that he had been libeled by statements in the advertisement.

Sullivan claimed that two of the ten paragraphs in the ad libeled him. The first paragraph in question was:

“In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' on the State Capitol steps, their leaders were expelled from school, and truckloads of police armed with shotguns and tear gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus. When the entire student body protested to state authorities by refusing to reregister, their dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission.”

And the second paragraph was:

“Again and again, the Southern violators have answered Dr. King's peaceful protests with intimidation and violence. They have bombed his home, almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person. They have arrested him seven times—for “speeding,” “loitering” and similar “offenses.” And now they have charged him with “perjury”—a felony under which they could imprison him for ten years. …”

As you can see, Sullivan's name was not mentioned, but he alleged that since he was the commissioner in charge of police he was libeled. Some of the statements in the ad were proved to be falsehoods, including:

  • Students sang the National Anthem and not “My Country 'Tis of Thee.”
  • Nine students were expelled for demanding service at a lunch counter in the Montgomery County Courthouse not for the demonstration at the Capitol.
  • Most of the student body protested, not the entire student body, by boycotting classes on a single day, not by refusing to reregister for classes.
  • The campus dining hall was never padlocked.
  • Police were deployed near the campus in large numbers on three occasions, but never “ringed” the campus.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested only four times, not seven times.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. claimed he was assaulted for loitering outside a courtroom, but one of the officers that made the arrest denied there was such an assault.
  • While Dr. King's home had been bombed twice when his wife and children were there, these bombings happened before Sullivan was commissioner.

The advertisement was placed by a New York advertising agency and cost $4,800. The agency submitted the advertisement with a letter from A. Philip Randolph as chairman of the Committee to Defend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, which signed the ad along with 64 named persons. Randolph said these people had given permission for the use of their names, but each testified that they had never granted permission and did not know about the ad until they were asked to retract their statements. Neither the Times nor the advertising agency confirmed the accuracy of the ad.

The case first was heard before the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, which awarded Sullivan damages of $500,000. This ruling was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Alabama. The Times appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court unanimously overturned the lower court ruling. In writing the opinion for the Court, Justice Brennan said:

“… 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 .… The present advertisement, as an expression of grievance and protest on one of the major public issues of our time, would seem clearly to qualify for the constitutional protection. The question is whether it forfeits that protection by the falsity of some of its factual statements and by its alleged defamation of respondent.

“Authoritative interpretations of the First Amendment guarantees have consistently refused to recognize an exception for any test of truth—whether administered by judges, juries, or administrative officials—and especially one that puts the burden of proving truth on the speaker.”

This case reaffirmed the Court's strong support for Freedom of Speech when key public issues are being debated even if some falsehoods work their way into the public debate. Public officials today cannot sue for libel unless they can prove malice.

Sometimes the issue of whether or not someone is a public official will be challenged in the courts today.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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