In this famous case, L. B. Sullivan, a Montgomery, Alabama, City Commissioner, sued the New York Times for libel and won a $500,000 verdict in a state court. The Times had run a paid ad critical of the way Alabama and some of its local police had treated civil rights activists. It was undisputed that the ad contained factual errors in its criticism. The Times appealed the half a million dollar verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming its rights protected under the First Amendment had been infringed by the state court ruling.  The Supreme Court agreed.

In a 9-0 decision, it held that a public official, like Sullivan, had to show “actual malice” in the publication of slanderous material to recover for libel. Any lesser standard, the Court held, would chill discussions regarding the public behavior of public actors. Where they right?


The case itself: N.Y. Times v Sullivan

A copy of the full page ad at issue.

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