September 1, 2010
During the 1950s and 60s, freedom of the press became an important battleground of the emerging civil rights movement, as leaders sought to awaken the public to the brutal reality of segregation in the Deep South. In 1960, The New York Times published an advertisement by supporters of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying that racist southern officials had used lawless tactics against Dr. King and other civil rights leaders. The ad mentioned no names, but two officials from Montgomery, Alabama sued for libel, claiming they could be identified as participants in what the ad described as an 'unprecedented wave of terror' against civil rights activists. They won a $500,000 judgment against the paper, but the Supreme Court famously reversed the decision in 1964, in a decision that revolutionized libel law. The case, New York Times v. Sullivan, also paved the way for more realistic coverage of the civil rights struggle by lifting the threat of libel actions, which in turn garnered public support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other important social changes.
In Times, the Justices made clear that anyone claiming libel must prove the statements were false in order to win, and must also prove that the falsity was not just an innocent mistake but a result of 'actual malice.' The most significant part of the decision was Justice William Brennan's ringing affirmation of the role of the First Amendment in ensuring that discussion of public issues is 'robust, uninhibited, and wide open.'