“The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood related to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with actual malice.”
— Justice William Brennan,
N.Y. Times v. Sullivan.
“In my view the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution afford to the citizen and to the press an absolute, unconditional privilege to criticize official conduct despite the harm which may flow from excesses and abuses.”
— Justice Arthur Goldberg,
N.Y. Times v. Sullivan.
The last week has seen significant talk about the legal standard to be applied when a person who has a public persona receives negative coverage in print or electronic media. It’s ironic that the news coverage in question was printed by the New York Times because the landmark Supreme Court case in this area is New York Times v. Sullivan.
The case did not arise out of news coverage by the Times, but rather by a full page advertisement that the paper agreed to run on March 29, 1960. The advertisement had been paid for by a group known as the ‘Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South.’ The advertisements asked for contributions toward a defense fund for King, who was facing a criminal charge in Alabama.
The advertisement was signed by a number of prominent actors and public figures including Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Eartha Kitt, Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The controversy arose because the advertisement got some of its facts wrong when it described the protests and subsequent arrests. Of greatest import to the civil lawsuit was a statement that King had been arrested by Alabama police officers on seven different occasions. In fact, he had, at that point, been arrested only four times.
The law in the state of Alabama in 1960 provided that a public official could only recover in a libel lawsuit if they first demanded that the publication retract their statement. Although the advertisement mentioned no Alabama officials by name, the Public Safety Commissioner of Montgomery, L.B. Sullivan, sent a demand to the Times for them to retract the advertisement.
The Times reacted with incredulity, sending a letter back to Sullivan asking him to clarify how the advertisement applied to him at all.
Sullivan did not respond to the Times, but rather sued the newspaper for libel in state court in Alabama. The paper subsequently received a second demand for a retraction from the Governor of Alabama, and the paper actually did publish a correction of the misstated facts following the Governor’s demand.
Sullivan won a $500,000 judgment against the Times and four individuals on the committee.
The Times appealed, and the case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. The Court’s decision was unanimous and in favor of the Times. It created a standard for libel of public figures that is very different from that of many European nations. The standard it created is sometimes referred to as the “Actual Malice” rule. In order for a public figure to prevail against anyone for allegedly libelous statements, the public figure must prove that source of the statements either had actual knowledge that the information was false, or that it recklessly disregarded the truth.
Three Justices- Black, Goldberg and Douglas- wrote separate concurrences in which they said that they would have prohibited libel actions by public officials in all cases, even those in which the person knew the statement was false. They felt that the First Amendment provided an ‘absolute, unconditional’ right of speech.
Though the Court clarified in 1974 that the actual malice standard did not apply in cases brought by private persons, Sullivan remains the law of the land in actions brought by public figures.
Subsequent cases have fleshed out just who qualifies as a ‘public figure’, depending on their position and employment. Public figures aren’t just politicians, but also athletes, business leaders, actors, musicians and those who attract public attention. That fame brings about a higher standard of scrutiny and a higher standard to prove that the scrutiny is libelous.