Geof Stone on 50 Years of New York Times v. Sullivan
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, perhaps the most important First Amendment case in American history. In the words of the great First Amendment scholar Alexander Meiklejohn, the decision was "an occasion for dancing in the streets." Why was Sullivan so important?
The case arose out of an action for libel brought by Montgomery, Alabama, Commissioner L.B. Sullivan, who alleged that an advertisement published in the New York Times in 1960 by a group of African-American clergymen contained several statements about him that were false. The advertisement, titled "Heed Their Rising Voices," described the civil rights movement and appealed for contributions to support the movement.
Prior to Sullivan, the Supreme Court had held that false statements of fact have no constitutional value and that individuals who make false statements can therefore be held accountable for the harm they cause without raising any First Amendment issue. The logic of this view was simple: Whatever else the First Amendment was intended to do, it surely was not intended to encourage false statements of fact, which can hardly be said to further the values of sound public discourse.