New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,
376 U.S. 254 (1964)

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U.S. Supreme Court

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

No. 39

Argued January 6, 1964

Decided March 9, 1964*

376 U.S. 254


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.

Page 376 U. S. 255

(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.

Page 376 U. S. 256

Primary Holding

To sustain a claim of defamation or libel, the First Amendment requires that the plaintiff show that the defendant knew that a statement was false or was reckless in deciding to publish the information without investigating whether it was accurate.


During the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century, the New York Times published a full-page ad for contributing donations to defend Martin Luther King, Jr. on perjury charges. The ad contained several minor factual inaccuracies, such as the number of times that King had been arrested and actions taken by the Montgomery, Alabama police. The city Public Safety commissioner, L.B. Sullivan, felt that the criticism of his subordinates reflected on him, even though he was not mentioned in the ad. Sullivan sent a written request to the Times to publicly retract the information, as required for a public figure to seek punitive damages in a libel action under Alabama law.

When the Times refused and claimed that they were puzzled by the request, Sullivan filed his libel action against the Times and a group of African-American ministers mentioned in the ad. A jury in state court awarded him $500,000 in damages. Curiously, the Times did eventually retract the ad's statements when Alabama Governor John Patterson demanded it. The newspaper felt that, while Patterson also was not named in the ad, its comments reflected more directly on him because he represented the state of Alabama generally.

Procedural History

Supreme Court of Alabama - 144 So. 2d 25 (Ala. 1962)

Affirmed. The jury's finding that the newspaper was liable for libel and its damages award were not improper.



  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • Tom C. Clark
  • John Marshall Harlan II
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White

Brennan held that the First Amendment did not permit a finding of liability by Alabama courts in this context, especially considering the modest evidence that had been presented. When a statement concerns a public figure, according to Brennan, it is not enough to show that it is false for the press to be liable for libel. Instead, the target of the statement must show that it was made with knowledge of or reckless disregard for its falsity. Brennan used the term "actual malice" to summarize this standard, although he did not intend the usual meaning of a malicious purpose. "Malice" had a long-standing meaning within libel law that limited it to knowledge or gross recklessness rather than intent, since courts found it difficult to imagine that someone would knowingly disseminate false information without a bad intent. However, it previously had been used only to determine whether enhanced penalties, such as punitive damages, should be awarded.


  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas

While he agreed with the majority's reasoning, Black felt that the actual malice standard did not go far enough in providing First Amendment protections. He argued that it was not clear enough to be consistently applied.


  • Arthur Joseph Goldberg (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas

Case Commentary

This case clarified the scope of First Amendment protection for speech on matters of public concern, resolving a disagreement among lower courts as to whether it extended beyond opinion and comment to good-faith statements that proved to be factually and objectively false. In deciding that it did, the Supreme Court gave substantial protections to defendants such as newspapers and other media outlets by raising the burden of proof required for plaintiffs in libel claims.

Another, less familiar development associated with this case is the burden shifting from the defendant proving that the statement was true, as was traditionally done in defamation cases, to the plaintiff proving that the statement was false. Great Britain continues to adhere to the traditional rule, while Australia has followed the U.S. in making the shift.

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