The New York Times vs. Sullivan case was a landmark ruling from the United States (US) Supreme Court which defined the standards to be met before an individual claims defamation or libel from a media house (Anthony 3). In this regard, it allowed for the reporting of civil rights campaigns in America, or in general terms, the freedom of expression for the media.
The derived standards defined defamation cases as evident where a media entity perpetrates false information knowingly or if it can be affirmed that factual information was played around with to perpetrate falsehoods against a public official (Anthony 3).
Events that led to the hearing of the New York times vs. Sullivan case saw the piling of court cases amounting to million of dollars where individuals sued the press for libel. Due to this situation, the press at the time was exercising a lot of caution in reporting sensitive stories relating to individual entities (Anthony 4). However, when the New York Times prevailed in the case, many media houses restored their confidence in reporting civil rights campaigns at the South.
This conclusion was reached after the New York Times mounted a good defense against Sullivan; claiming that organizations and individuals were out to curtail media freedom as they upheld illegal activities while supporting segregation of the people (Hensley 168). This study therefore notes that the New York Times made a huge leap in advocating for freedom of speech for the press through its triumph in the Sullivan case.
Background on the Case
The New York Times case was preceded by actions by the newspaper agency to publish a full-page story in support of Martin Luther King Junior who was facing indictment in the state of Alabama. The article was titled “Heed their Rising Voices” and highlighted the plight of civil right protestors in the hands of law enforcement officers in Alabama and Montgomery (Lamoureux 191).
Though the article refrained from naming individuals, it was alleged that the New York Times defamed the Alabama law enforcement agency by wrongly criticizing its actions. However, the Alabama law denied a public officer from being rewarded damages arising from libel (from the publication of the report) and instead demanded that an officer should make a public claim against New York Times if he/she was to be compensated (Lamoureux 191).
This guideline prompted S. L. Sullivan to sue New York Times for libel. Instead of retracting, the New York Times (cited in Burnett) responded by stating:
“we … are somewhat puzzled as to how you think the statements in any way reflect on you,” and “you might, if you desire, let us know in what respect you claim that the statements in the advertisement reflect on you” (116).
Instead of responding to the newspaper agency, Sullivan went ahead with his suit and even included four African American ministers in the case as part of the conspiracy to defame his name. Surprisingly, he was awarded half a million dollars worth of damages by the Alabama court (Lamoureux 191).
Later, the New York Times was forced to retract statements on its article which made reference to Alabama’s governor but it interestingly never did the same for Sullivan. When asked why they made such an action, the officials to the Newspaper agency responded by saying:
“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 presumably of which the Governor is the ex-officio chairman….” (Lamoureux 191).
The officials further affirmed their previous stand by reiterating that they did not think Sullivan was in any way mentioned in the report. Nonetheless, the Times however appealed to the Supreme Court for further hearing and it was established that the Alabama court made the earlier judgment of awarding damages to Sullivan in deficiency of constitutional rights which safeguarded the freedom of speech outlined in the 1st and 4th Amendments. Considering the evidence brought forward in the case, Sullivan’s argument could not be sustained (Kellermann 212).
Effects on Future Rulings
The New York Times vs. Sullivan case introduced the term “actual malice” before any case can be proved as a case of defamation or libel. This therefore implied that in all future rulings where a public official claimed defamation or libel, he/she ought to prove that there was some sense of recklessness in carrying out investigations, or that there was no investigation at all on the information published by the press (Kellermann 212).
This ruling redefined the ordinary meaning of malicious intent which was previously quoted by many officials to support their cases against the press. In the court ruling, Justice Black affirmed that:
“‘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” (Kellermann 212).
However, it should not be assumed that the term “malice” was a newly coined term in the action against libel or defamation because in many jurisdictions (including Alabama) the term “actual malice” had to be proved before any damages were to be awarded.
However, it was quite difficult to prove any malicious intentions on the part of any writer but the argument still stood that only malicious people had the intention of publishing false information; thereby constituting acts of libel or defamation(Kellermann 212). This ruling set the precedent for subsequent cases seen from the example of Hoeppner v. Dunkirk Printing Co., 254 N.Y. 95 (1930) (cited on Forde 246) where the Supreme court made an almost similar ruling by stating that:
“The plaintiff alleges that this criticism of him and of his work was not fair and was not honest; it was published with actual malice, ill will and spite. If he establishes this allegation, he has made out a cause of action. No comment or criticism, otherwise libelous, is fair or just comment on a matter of public interest if it be made through actual ill will and malice”. (246)
It can therefore be assumed that from the Sullivan case, the press found a new meaning of the term “actual malice” because a new constitutional significance was born to safeguard the freedom of speech which was usually neglected by previous court rulings.
Also, In the case of Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967), the Supreme Court affirmed standards set by the 1st amendment of the American Constitution resulting form lawsuits filed by private individuals because it was held by the court that since the press was safeguarded from liabilities arising from allegations by public officials on printing defaming material, they are still not immune from lawsuits filed on cases that can prove they acted in neglect of the truth (Devol 307).
However, in the case of Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), where a fundamental protestant Minister, Jerry Falwell, sued for emotional distress; based on the precedent set by the New York Vs. Sullivan case (regarding actual malice); Hustler magazine published an article talking about incestuous acts between Falwell’s mother and him.
The US Supreme court ruled that according to the free speech guarantee outlined in the 1st amendment, it was not lawful to award damages to public figures for emotional distress whether it was inflicted on them intentionally or not (Menez 311).
It was later affirmed that Hustler magazine’s parody on the minister was not unlawful and therefore Jerry was not in a position to demand for damages which were already awarded to him by a previous jury ruling amounting to $200,000 (Menez 311). This was because the Supreme Court ruled that there was little chance that reasonable people could have termed the parody by Hustler magazine on Jerry Falwell as factual (Menez 311).
However, In the Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990), the extent to which the press could go to exercise their freedom of free speech (first allowed in the New York Times vs. Sullivan case) was later redefined. In fact, some observers note that the Mikovich case marked the end of an era started by the Sullivan case (Zirkel 127).
Nonetheless, the Milkovich case led to the unanimous ruling that a separate opinion privilege existed against libel because the Supreme Court went to extreme lengths to clarify the range and scope of what could be said by the press, without the fear of being held libelous (Zirkel 127).
From the case, it was widely held by many observers and experts alike that according to the 1st amendment, it was highly unlikely that the recognition of false ideas as incumbent in the case would be recognized. It was however very surprising to the observers and experts when the court ruled that there were already enough safeguards erected by the law to safeguard free speech without recognizing opinion privileges on libelous acts (Zirkel 127).
In close comparison, the Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. case seemed to differ slightly from the Sullivan case but the Westmoreland v. CBS case of 1982 seemed to reaffirm the previous ruling of the Sullivan case.
The case was filed by a US army chief of staff who sued CBS News for libel on a story titled “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception” (in line with the New York vs. Sullivan landmark case) but it was held that the government ought to uphold a high standard of proof before it could curtail the freedom of the press to publish any material; since it would be a violation of the 1st amendment (Clurman 104).
The New York vs. Sullivan case has not been widely endorsed in most international rulings as previously expected by most observers. The Hill vs. Church of Scientology of Toronto case of 1995 in Canada is a classic example of such deviation from the American Supreme court ruling on acts of Libel.
The Hill vs. Church of Scientology case was interpreted by the Canadian Supreme Court according to the Canadian Charter of Rights and freedoms which were a deviation from the “actual malice” standard precedent set by the New York vs. Sullivan case (Dyzenhaus 416).
The Hill case involved a church Lawyer by the name Morris Manning who alleged that Hill, who worked for a local law firm misled a judge and failed to seal certain documents that pertained to Scientology in a previous case (Dyzenhaus 416).
However, even amid all the accusations against Hill, it was later established that the accusations against Hill was unfounded but quite interesting, Hill launched a claim against the appellants for libel.
It was later established that the appellants had a case to answer including scientology as its own independent entity. In this regard, the appellants were entitled to pay hill C$ 300,000 and Scientology was also to pay the plaintiff C$ 500,000 for aggravated damages in addition to C$ 800,000 for further punitive damages through the affirming of a 1983 decision by the Court of Appeal of Ontario (Dyzenhaus 416).
All factors withstanding, the major bone of contention in the case was whether the common law of defamation was valid in light of the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms but it however became clear from the Supreme Court ruling that the law protected a plaintiff’s reputation at the expense of the freedom of speech.
Grant vs. Rorts Star corp. is also another Canadian case that follows an almost similar precedent although it was under the tort of defamation (Supreme Court of Canada 1). In detail, the case revolved around the controversial reporting by Toronto Star of a golf course expected to be undertaken on a piece of land under the name of Peter Grant (who filed the case in the first place) (Supreme Court of Canada 1).
The article’s outline included comments from the public which inclined towards the fact that Peter Grant was exercising his political muscle to see the golf course project become a success.
The Toronto star tried to reach Grant for comments but he declined and at this point, the newspaper went ahead to publish the article (Supreme Court of Canada 3). In the Canadian Supreme court ruling, it was established that the law of defamation should allow the press or any other entity to freely report matters of public interest, so long as the exercise was done in a responsible manner. This therefore means that the Canadian Supreme Court regarded responsible reporting as a defense against defamation.
The Derbyshire County Council v. Times Newspapers Ltd case in the UK is also an example of the decline of the New York Times vs. Sullivan case precedent on the freedom of expression due to common law contravention (John 2). In the case, the Times News Paper published an article exposing the scandalous nature of the Derbyshire County council’s handling of its superannuation funds.
The Derbyshire County Council was offended by the article and later sued for libel. The resultant argument was whether a local authority or any other institution of similar nature could maintain an action of libel against the press for actions which it should have otherwise upheld as part of its governance policy.
The Court of appeal ruled that Derbyshire was not in a position to maintain an action of libel against Times newspaper, but based on an imaginative application of the common law (John 2). This ruling therefore implied that the rule derived from the New York vs. Sullivan case which stated that a party should have to prove untruthfulness for a defamation case to stand in court (as opposed to the defendant proving the truthfulness of facts) was rejected.
Criticism on the Case
The New York Times and its Progeny have been under criticism on the basis that it has failed to protect the press from the “reckless disregard standard”, and at the same time, the New York Times has been both overprotective and under-protective of the rights of free expression (Watson 3). These accusations have also been mounted from the fact that the New York Times failed to protect the thought process of editors and other creators of information by launching a critical analysis on the intention of such personalities.
Also, the New York times has been under criticism from the fact that it has failed to preclude potentially extensive and chilling damages if a court of law affirms that a given media house had acted in reckless disregard of facts relating to a given defamation or libel case. In other quarters, it had been affirmed that the New York Times gave too much protection to the press, such that there was an imbalance in proceedings related to libel because the rights of the victims were almost entirely squashed (Watson 3).
In the same regard, the rightful compensation of libel victims was denied by New York Times because the victims found it increasingly difficult to obtain judicial declarations of falsity; which in the view of some people would have been the justifiable thing to do (Watson 3).
Nonetheless, there have been unique suggestions which have been proposed to curb the deficits brought about by the New York Times ruling. Specifically, it has been proposed that the plaintiff can seek a right to fair judgment by first letting go the right to compensation.
The arguments behind this opinion is that the victim could potentially reduce litigation costs and allow for the vindication of their process, while at the same time, saving the defendant (press) from being critically evaluated on their thought process or from having to experience the agony of defending themselves from probabilities of paying heavy damages (Watson 3). However, it still remains uncertain whether such an action would be in accordance to the spirit of the first amendment or not.
The New York Times vs. Sullivan ruling is probably the first case that made reference to the first amendment in defining the freedom of speech by the press. This was the ground through which it revoked the ruling by the Alabama court which granted Sullivan $500,000 because it was in violation of the laws stipulated in the 1st amendment.
From the outset of the case, it can be largely perceived that the court dealt with its own past precedents involving cases of a similar nature; much to the effect that libelous utterances cannot be termed as a fragment of expository ideas and that they do not fall as part of the constitutional protection of the freedom of speech.
The court therefore seems to reject prior declarations through the explanation that “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”; to the contrary, libel “must be measured by standards that satisfy the First Amendment” (Hopkins 568).
In this regard, it can be said that the New York Times revolutionized the interpretation of the law of libel and started the general shift in first amendment Jurisprudence because the traditional approach of whether libel was a protected or unprotected speech was thereafter abandoned after the ruling. Instead, a more speech-protective, friendly analysis was adopted, exemplifying the apparent danger of letting libel curtail the freedom of speech (which is protected by the 1st amendment in the first place).
In light of these developments, the New York Times case ruling thereafter set a precedent for other courts to adopt a more sensitive but less formulaic interpretation of torts of libel and defamation; in line with the freedom of expression rights which are protected at the heart of the 1st amendment. However, the biggest argument that remained after the ruling was whether the resultant decree only bound public officials or other individuals and organizations as well.
However, later cases solved this dilemma by extending this rule to individuals like athletes, celebrities and the likes because such personalities were well known by the public.
However, several years after the court ruling, the court was again deeply divided on the scope and limitation of the freedom of free speech as evidenced from the Gertz vs. Robert Welch Inc. case which brought forth the ruling that the freedom of speech did not extent to private individuals or cases that touched on matters of public interest since private individuals were usually unable to rebut the libel effectively (plus they often don’t go out to seek public opinion).
Also the court is of the opinion that private individuals are in a position to recover from libel, much faster than public officials can; just by proving negligence.
Comprehensively, it should be noted that the New York Times was solely driven by concerns of free expression in the South because at the height of the case, there were attempts to conceal civil rights oppression in the states. The New York Times case should therefore not only be viewed as a step to upholding the right of the press regarding the freedom of speech but also a step towards the upholding of civil rights and a step towards the elimination of racial sentiments.
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