New York Times v. Sullivan begins as a libel case. Libel concerns defamation, harm to someone’s reputation. Anyone who believes the media (newspapers, television, etc.) has damaged his or her reputation has the right to sue for monetary damages to compensate for his/her loss. This case started when L.B. Sullivan, an elected commissioner in Montgomery, Ala., sued the New York Times for damaging his reputation. The context was the growing civil rights movement in the South.
The efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the NAACP in the South required media support, mainly from northern newspapers and the television networks, to expose the ongoing segregation and the movement’s passive resistance to the aggression directed against its members. In March 1960, a group of African American civil rights leaders bought a full-page ad in the New York Times describing several incidents alleging police brutality in several locations in Alabama and Mississippi and asking Americans to “heed their rising voices,” a phrase they borrowed from a Times editorial that appeared a week before. The ad solicited funds to support their non-violent efforts to register voters. Some of the incidents were said to have occurred in Montgomery, Ala.
The ad, mostly accurate, contained several errors of fact, but it did not name any individual police department or person as responsible for the incidents. Sullivan, however, thought otherwise. He was the commissioner in charge of public safety, and he claimed his reputation had been damaged because people in his town would know that he was the person in charge of policing and therefore responsible for the acts alleged. He sued the Times for libel.
Sullivan could have filed the case in New York, but he chose to file it in his home state of Alabama. Sullivan knew he would find a more sympathetic jury there, but there was a larger issue: widespread southern anger at what was perceived to be northern meddling in the civil rights actions occurring in the South, from lunch-counter sit-ins and bus boycotts to voter registration drives. At the time, the Times had a daily circulation of about 390 papers statewide in Alabama and only 35 in Montgomery.
At trial, the Times lawyers argued that the ad was protected under the First Amendment and in no way referred to Sullivan. Thus, he had no legal grounds for a libel suit, which requires identification as well as damage to reputation to be proven. The all-white jury in Montgomery, where the trial was held, heard several witnesses claim they believed the references in the ad were about Sullivan, and that they would think less of him if they believed the charges. The jury returned a verdict awarding $500,000 to Sullivan. The Times appealed, and the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the award.
The Times then took a risky decision and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In part, it was a monetary decision: if the Times was forced to pay the damage award, it would nearly bankrupt the paper, which in 1960 was not the publishing giant it is today. Further, the newspaper’s publisher and editors feared that if this lawsuit prevailed, then it and all other news organizations would not be able to truthfully and fully report the turmoil in the South as the civil rights movement advanced. And following the Alabama decision other public officials in the South began filing libel suits against news organizations, not only the Times.
Most scholars agree that had the U.S. Supreme Court not taken the case, the threat of censorship via libel suits would have been escalated. The Justices chose to hear the case precisely because they viewed it as a serious threat to the First Amendment. Their decision established the constitutional limits of libel and clearly articulated that such actions smack of government-sponsored censorship of the media. Justice Brennan, writing for the Court, said if government officials could claim damages on such flimsy grounds, then the press (in its broadest sense) would avoid reporting controversial issues. Further, the press needed “breathing space” when handling such controversies to make insubstantial errors of fact. And finally, when people choose to step into the public arena, they subject themselves to more attention than do private citizens and therefore must expect criticism.
Legal terminology can be difficult to understand and impede student progress. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has a dictionary and explanations regarding online defamation that students may relate to: EFF Blogger's Legal GuideNolo’s website
offers a “plain English” dictionary of legal jargon, very helpful for looking up terms like “respondent”.
Tort Law Project has a short video that explains the points of libel and how it differs from slander. Tort Law Project: Slander vs Libel
- Anthony Lewis, former Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, has written a thorough, highly readable and accurate account of the lawsuit, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment* (1994), for teachers who want more detailed information.
*Recommended reading for college students in its entirety.
- Ronald L. Collins has written a brief, readable description of the impact of the decision: New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
The Case that Changed First Amendment History
- Lynne Flocke, a professor at Syracuse, has written a brief account of the issues at stake in the case, part of Syracuse University’s Civil Rights and the Press conference in 2003: Times v. Sullivan and the Civil Rights Movement
Documents in the Case
- A checklist of questions from the Library of Congress may help students judge the quality of primary sources: Questions for Analyzing Primary Sources
- Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute website is a portal to U. S. Supreme Court documents, including the full text of the decision, which presents in detail the facts of the case and a link to the oral arguments before the Supreme Court. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
- The ad, “Heed Their Rising Voices”, transcribed by the National Archives & Records Administration,
A. “The Ad That Changed Libel Law”
- Susan Dente Ross’s article, “The Ad That Changed Libel Law,” is a great starting point for understanding the rhetoric of the NAACP ad and how its supporters used specific language to argue for justice. It is not available via Google search, permission is granted to reproduce it for classroom use. (Susan Dente Ross: “The Ad That Changed Libel Law”
- Ross, Susan D. "Their Rising Voices: A Study of Civil Rights, Social Movements, and Advertising in the New York Times." Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 75:3 (Autumn 1998): 518-534.)
- 1. First, ask students to read the text of the ad. In small groups, or individually, ask them to consider the purposes of the ad.
- Who created the ad?
- Why was it created?
- Who did the ad’s creators hope to reach?
- Next, have them read the Ross article and reflect, individually in writing or in discussion groups, on the context she proposes.
- How was the ad created?
- Was it spur-of-the-moment, a routine transaction, or a thoughtful, deliberate process?
- Why did it appear in the New York Times and not in southern papers?
- How was the ad to be used by readers? That is, was it meant to persuade, or simply to recount events? What difference would that make?
- Have students, in small groups, create a similar kind of ad about a current politically charged event or issue.
- What conditions shape the current debate? Who are the major players?
- Would a newspaper ad be as effective today or are there other media resources that might be more effective?
- Would the same kind of message format work today
The Photo Effect
Photographs – images of any kind – have emotional power that can affect viewers’ perceptions of events and issues. That certainly was the case during the civil rights movement, when photos showed Americans in other parts of the country the increasingly violent confrontations between protestors and police. This activity can develop media-literacy skills and help students understand the role of images in any debate over matters of public concern. MaterialsPhoto Analysis WorksheetHow Photos became Icons of Civil Rights Movement
The Montgomery Advertiser, the local Alabama newspaper, still publishing, hosts a site dedicated to the bus boycott initiated by Rosa Parks. The site offers photographs, video clips, audio interviews, front pages and full-text news stories related to the boycott. www.montgomeryboycott.com
- Have students read the New York Times article and download or copy the Photo Analysis Worksheet.
- The teacher should select one or several photographs from the Advertiser web site and ask students, individually or in small groups, to analyze the image(s) based on the analysis worksheet.
- Have students discuss current issues of similar magnitude and search on their own for photographs depicting the events – for example, the Afghan war or Middle East generally, or images related to global warming or from natural disasters.
- Students can write an analysis of these photos, using the guidelines suggested by the worksheet and from the New York Times analysis.
- This can also be an oral presentation, displaying a digital image that students analyze together or independently.