How the Civil Rights Movement Expanded Freedom of the Press

A Supreme Court case referencing civil rights demonstrators changed libel law in the United States. 

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How Civil Rights Movement Expanded Freedom of the Press

A libel case arising from the civil rights movement is responsible for a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that expanded guarantees of freedom of the press, a New York Times editorial reminded readers on Sunday.

How is society to preserve open criticism of the government, while also protecting individuals from libel, or the publication of damaging false statements?” the Times asked.

“Fifty years ago this Sunday, the Supreme Court answered that question with a landmark decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. The ruling instantly changed libel law in the United States, and it still represents the clearest and most forceful defense of press freedom in American history.

“The case involved an ad that had appeared in The Times in 1960, condemning ‘an unprecedented wave of terror’ against civil-rights demonstrators by ‘Southern violators,’ particularly in Alabama. The ad was a plea for national attention, and for donations to support the movement. L. B. Sullivan, a Montgomery city commissioner, sued The Times for libel, claiming that the ad clearly targeted him, even if not by name, and that it contained numerous factual errors. Applying plaintiff-friendly libel laws, an Alabama state court awarded him $500,000.

“The Supreme Court voted unanimously to overturn that verdict. The country’s founders believed, Justice William Brennan Jr. wrote, quoting an earlier decision, ‘that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.’ Such discussion, he added, must be ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,’ and ‘may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.’

“To the court, the civil-rights context was key: The ad was ‘an expression of grievance and protest on one of the major public issues of our time,’ and Alabama officials could not shut down that criticism, even though it contained minor errors. ‘Erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate,’ Justice Brennan reasoned, and ‘must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space that they need to survive.’

“With this in mind, the court announced a new ‘actual malice’ standard that requires a public official to prove that the defendant knew the statement was false, or recklessly disregarded its truth or falsity. (Private citizens rightly have a lower hurdle to clear; generally, they need only show that a falsehood is the result of negligence.)

“The ruling was revolutionary, because the court for the first time rejected virtually any attempt to squelch criticism of public officials — even if false — as antithetical to ‘the central meaning of the First Amendment.’ Today, our understanding of freedom of the press comes in large part from the Sullivan case. Its core observations and principles remain unchallenged, even as the Internet has turned everyone into a worldwide publisher — capable of calling public officials instantly to account for their actions, and also of ruining reputations with the click of a mouse. . . .”

Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Root: What Was the 1st Black American Newspaper?