New York Times v. Sullivan: Freedom of the press and the Civil Rights Movement

The Annenberg Public Policy Center commemorates the landmark Supreme Court case ahead of the ruling’s 60th anniversary.

The front of the New York Times building at night.
Image: Aaron M. Sprecher via AP

When law students learn about New York Times v. Sullivan they often don’t learn about it as a case from the Civil Rights Movement that is about the struggle for equality, Penn Carey Law Professor Kermit Roosevelt said recently in a discussion on the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 1964.

March 9 marks the 60th anniversary of the decision, which held that a public official suing for defamation must prove the statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning with knowledge the statement was false, or with “reckless disregard” of the truth. “The point of this is,” Roosevelt said, “if you’re out there being reasonable and doing your job in good faith, the actual malice standard will probably shield everything that you do.”

With the release of a 26-minute documentary, a video launch followed by a discussion with experts, and facilitating programming for teachers, the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) has been commemorating the consequential freedom of the press case.

In conjunction with Constitution Day in September, Annenberg Classroom released the free short film “The First Amendment: New York Times v. Sullivan.” It details the case’s origins in “Heed Their Rising Voices,” a full-page ad that the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South took out in the newspaper in 1960, listing the ways people in the South were trying to silence King. It contained some inaccuracies, including how many times King was arrested and the song protesters sang.

In Alabama, Montgomery County Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan was angry at the ad’s portrayal of how his police force responded to civil rights demonstrations and sued The New York Times and activists for libel, a statement making a false allegation that damages one’s reputation. The ability of the press to cover the Civil Rights Movement without massive financial penalties was at stake.

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sullivan, but the U.S. Supreme Court sided with The New York Times in a 9-0 decision. Justice William Brennan wrote that “erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate” and must be protected for freedom of expression to have the “breathing space” needed to survive.

“Were there no press to publicize the kind of rabid hostility to change, I don’t think the Civil Rights Movement would’ve succeeded,” history professor Mary Frances Berry says in the film. In a discussion with Roosevelt after a virtual screening of the film, Berry said her students interested in social justice want to talk about the Fourteenth Amendment, but they also need the First Amendment.

“If the press does not cover you, you don’t exist as a movement,” Berry said, because then nobody will know that you participated in a protest or march. And despite the risks, she said, people who protest may succeed “in changing people’s minds and making great change in this country.”

Helping to carry these lessons forward, Andrea Reidell, director of outreach and curriculum for the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics (LAIC) at APPC, teamed up with partners from the Civics Renewal Network, an alliance of more than 40 nonpartisan civics groups assembled by APPC to offer free, high-quality educational resources, to provide programming for teachers in New York and Philadelphia in conjunction with Civic Learning Week, happening March 11 to 15.

At the New York Historical Society on March 13 will be an hour-long workshop for middle- and high-school teachers followed by the public program “Civil Rights and Freedom of the Press: New York Times Co. v. Sullivan at 60,” a screening of the documentary and discussion.

Reidell says that LAIC put out a nationwide call to teachers for lesson plan proposals for the film, awarding stipends to three teachers in Michigan, Missouri, and Washington state. Two teachers will join virtually for the first event in New York and for another event for teachers on March 14 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, which has a virtual component. LAIC is holding the latter event in partnership with the Supreme Court Historical Society.

“I think that many people would come to this film knowing a little bit about freedom of the press but not too much about the cases that came before the Supreme Court or the struggles to get there,” Reidell says. Similarly, she adds, people might know about the Civil Rights Movement but not about the intersection of the movement with freedom of the press in New York Times v. Sullivan, “so you can’t really talk about one without the other.”

As is the case with other LAIC programs, she wants people to think about how the case fits in with what’s happening today.

“As we’ve seen over the past couple of years, Supreme Court decisions aren’t necessarily cast in stone forever, and there are two sitting Supreme Court justices who have now been questioning the decision in New York Times v. Sullivan,” Reidell says, referring to justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch. But both she and Roosevelt noted the world has changed a lot since 1964, when news sources were fewer in number and more trusted.

Referencing the case, Reidell said, “I think we’ll be looking at conversations about this for years to come.”

Kermit Roosevelt is the David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice in the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought Emerita in the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts & Sciences.