The Supreme Court case of the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan is remembered today as a watershed event for free speech, but it began with something quite mundane: a newspaper advertisement. In 1960, the Times ran a full-page ad purchased by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South.
By today’s standards, the ad was fairly innocuous. Written in unadorned, plain text, it cited a growing movement of mass demonstrations in the South and asked that Congress “Heed Their Rising Voices.” It asked for contributions to support the cause. The ad described black student leaders being arrested and threatened for singing “My Country Tis of Thee” on the steps of the State Capitol. It described the use of tear gas by police. One phrase that would become an enormous point of contention says that police “padlocked the dining hall” in order to starve students into submission.
Although virtually no one in Alabama at the time read the Times, 394 copies went out to subscribers and newsstands, the local newspaper ran a story and it prompted public outrage. One of the people particularly angered by the ad was L.B. Sullivan, the Montgomery Public Safety Commissioner. Although he was not named in the advertisement he believed it was libelous about the way he administered his office. He filed a libel suit in circuit court and was awarded $500,000 by an all-white jury.
Thus began one of the seminal cases in freedom of the press and free speech. In “Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment,” Anthony Lewis, a veteran New York Times reporter and legal journalist, details the case and its historical significance. He expertly weaves in the legal minutia of the case (the wrangling of whether the Times did enough business in Alabama for the court to have jurisdiction is an interesting legal question) with the history and the stories of the people who helped decide the case.
Lewis keeps the readers interest as the case wends its way through the judicial system. An appeal was denied in the Alabama Supreme Court in 1962 with the judges agreeing that the penalty was not excessive and that the First Amendment of the Constitution “does not protect libelous publications.” He also expertly explains the framers’ intention of the First Amendment. In words of James Madison the press was, “one of the great bulwarks of liberty” and “shall be inviolable.”
The real fireworks come during the 1963 argument before the Supreme Court, then presided over by Chief Justice Earl Warren. In vivid detail, Lewis describes the justices peppering the attorney for the Times, Herbert Wechsler, with questions about whether reasonable people could have found the advertisement libelous of Sullivan. The attorney for the opposing side, Roland Nachman, argued vigorously that libelous speech is not defended by the First Amendment.
In the end, the high court reversed the Alabama court’s decision. They found that the advertisement contained a number of errors including the fact that the students sang the National Anthem and not “My Country Tis of Thee.” Still, Justice William Brennan in his opinion wrote that: “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open” and it may include “vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasant attacks on public officials …” He went on to say that the Constitution even protects “erroneous statements honestly made.”
The case bolstered free speech and established a much higher standard of “actual malice” for speech to be defined as libel.
Salem Solomon (@salem_solomon) is a journalist, graduate student and a teaching assistant at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She is currently based in Washington D.C. and working on her professional practicum at Voice of America’s Horn of Africa Service.