New York Times Company v. Sullivan

PETITIONER: New York Times Company
LOCATION: New York Times Office

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962-1965)

CITATION: 376 US 254 (1964)
ARGUED: Jan 06, 1964 / Jan 07, 1964
DECIDED: Mar 09, 1964

Herbert Wechsler - For the Petitioner
M. Roland Nachman, Jr. - for the Respondent
Samuel R. Pierce, Jr. - for the Petitioner
William P. Rogers - for the Petitioner

Facts of the case

Decided together with Abernathy v. Sullivan, this case concerns a full-page ad in the New York Times which alleged that the arrest of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for perjury in Alabama was part of a campaign to destroy King's efforts to integrate public facilities and encourage blacks to vote. L. B. Sullivan, the Montgomery city commissioner, filed a libel action against the newspaper and four black ministers who were listed as endorsers of the ad, claiming that the allegations against the Montgomery police defamed him personally. Under Alabama law, Sullivan did not have to prove that he had been harmed; and a defense claiming that the ad was truthful was unavailable since the ad contained factual errors. Sullivan won a $500,000 judgment.


Did Alabama's libel law, by not requiring Sullivan to prove that an advertisement personally harmed him and dismissing the same as untruthful due to factual errors, unconstitutionally infringe on the First Amendment's freedom of speech and freedom of press protections?

Media for New York Times Company v. Sullivan

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 07, 1964 in New York Times Company v. Sullivan

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 06, 1964 in New York Times Company v. Sullivan

Earl Warren:

Number 39, New York Times Company, Petitioner, versus L.B. Sullivan.

Mr. Wechsler.

Herbert Wechsler:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This case is here together with Number 40 on writ of certiorari granted a year ago to the Supreme Court of Alabama.

It summons for review a judgment of that court which poses in our submission hazards to the freedom of the press of a dimension not confronted since the early days as the Republic.


Herbert Wechsler:

Thank you.

I was saying that the writ calls for review, a judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama which in our submission poses hazards for these -- freedom of the press, not confronted since the early days of the Republic.

The questions presented are, in general, first, how far the civil law of libel may be used by state officials to punish the publication of statements critical of their official conduct or of the conduct of the agencies of which they are in-charge.

And second, how far a state may force a newspaper which publishes a thousand miles away to defend libel actions instituted in its forum because its correspondents go there on occasion to cover news of national importance as -- for a very small amount of advertising emanates from sources in the State and a very small circulation of the paper in this instance, 394 copies of the total daily circulation of 650,000 found its way into the State.

The problems arise in this context.

The action was instituted by the respondent, Mr. L.B. Sullivan, one of the three elected Commissioners of the City of Montgomery, Alabama.

It was brought against the Times and four codefendants who were then residents of Alabama, four clergymen, the Reverends Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, Seay and Lowery.

These are the petitioners in Number 40.

The complaint demands damages of $500,000 for libel allegedly contained in two paragraphs of a full page advertisement that was published in the Times on March 29th, 1960.

I should say that similar actions based on the same advertisement were instituted by the other two city Commissioners by a former Commissioner and by the then Governor of the State of Alabama, Governor Patterson.

They had dominance in these other suits, total $2 million.

But this was the first of the five cases brought to trial and it resulted in a verdict in a judgment against all defendants for the $500,000 claim.

Of the other cases, only the James case, the case by Mayor James has gone to trial, there was the same verdict there but that's pending on motion for new trial in the State of -- in the Alabama Court.

The other three cases were removed by the Times to the United States District Court.

The removal was sustained by the District Court but remand was ordered in a divided judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

And that case involving the order of remand is also pending in this Court on petition for writ of certiorari in Number 52 of this term.

The publication claims of libel, the respondent --

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Which was the -- which was the James case, is that another Commissioner of Montgomery or (Voice Overlap) --

Herbert Wechsler:

He was the Commissioner who's called the mayor.

Potter Stewart:

One of the three Commissioners is the mayor.

Herbert Wechsler:

Yes sir.

One of the three Commissioners.

And that case of course was not removed, that was after a verdict.

Potter Stewart:

And -- and what's the status of that case now?