One of the most important freedom of press decisions in the Courts history, the case began when the New York Times ran an advertisement that contained several factual errors about the conduct of the Montgomery, Alabama police department in dealing with the civil rights movement. Although L.B. Sullivan was not mentioned, the advertisement reflected poorly on him as an elected commissioner in Montgomery. Sullivan sued in state court and won, but the Supreme Court ruled against him.
Asserting that the nation is committed to the idea that political debate should be uninhibited, robust, and wide open, the Court held that public officials can recover damages for libel only if they can prove both that the information was wrong and that the news organization published it with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.
376 U.S. 254 (1964)
CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ALABAMA
Respondent, an elected official in Montgomery, Alabama, brought suit in a state court alleging that he had been libeled by an advertisement in corporate petitioner's newspaper, the text of which appeared over the names of the four individual petitioners and many others. The advertisement included statements, some of which were false, about police action allegedly directed against students who participated in a civil rights demonstration and against a leader of the civil rights movement; respondent claimed the statements referred to him because his duties included supervision of the police department. The trial judge instructed the jury that such statements were "libelous per se," legal injury being implied without proof of actual damages, and that, for the purpose of compensatory damages, malice was presumed, so that such damages could be awarded against petitioners if the statements were found to have been published by them and to have related to respondent. As to punitive damages, the judge instructed that mere negligence was not evidence of actual malice, and would not justify an award of punitive damages; he refused to instruct that actual intent to harm or recklessness had to be found before punitive damages could be awarded, or that a verdict for respondent should differentiate between compensatory and punitive damages. The jury found for respondent, and the State Supreme Court affirmed.
Held: A State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves "actual malice" -- that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false. Pp. 376 U. S. 265-292.
(a) 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. P. 376 U. S. 265.
(b) Expression does not lose constitutional protection to which it would otherwise be entitled because it appears in the form of a paid advertisement. Pp. 376 U. S. 265-266.
(c) 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. Pp. 376 U. S. 279-283.
(d) 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. P. 376 U. S. 284.
(e) The evidence was constitutionally insufficient to support the judgment for respondent, since it failed to support a finding that the statements were made with actual malice or that they related to respondent. Pp. 376 U. S. 285-292.
273 Ala. 656, 144 So.2d 25, reversed and remanded.