Nature or case: First Amendment freedom of the press and speech case that went through the Alabama trial court system to the Supreme Court of Alabama and then to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Concise rule: Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are so fundamental to our constitutional system that public discussion and debate on issues should be uninhibited even when factual error and defamatory content are present if it cannot be proven that the statements were made with actual malice along with the knowledge of doing so.
Facts: Sullivan, the Commissioner of Public Affairs in Montgomery, Alabama felt that he was libeled in a full-page ad taken in out in the New York Times on March 29, 1960. The ad named 20 persons; Sullivan included, along with his three other petitioners, and Sullivan contended that the ad implied that he was involved in racially oppressing students.
In two of the ten paragraphs the police (Sullivan was a public representative) were charged with heinous actions against minority students. In court, several of the allegations were found to be exaggerations and false claims. Sullivan demanded a retraction from the Times, and the Times responded with a letter asking what he wanted a retraction for (although the governor of the state received a retraction). Only 35 copies of the paper containing the ad were even distributed in Montgomery County, and he was unable to show any loss in court for why damages should be awarded. The state trial judge instructed the jury in a manner that essentially condemned the Times and abridged the rights guaranteed by the 1st and 14th Amendments. Sullivan was awarded $500,000. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the actions and decisions of the judge, and that the malice required to award libel damages can...