The US Case of New York times v. Sullivan[1], is an important case on freedom of speech and expression of press. This decision also influenced the Indian supreme court in the cases related to freedom of press.

The facts of the case

In the year 1960, the New York Times carried a full page paid advertisement sponsored by the “Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South”, which asserted or implied that law-enforcement officials in Montgomery, Alabama, had improperly arrested and harassed Dr King and other civil rights demonstrators on various occasions.

Respondent, who was the elected Police Commissioner of Montgomery, brought an action for libel against the Times and several of the individual signatories to the advertisement. It was found that some of the assertions contained in the advertisement were inaccurate. The Alabama courts found the defendants guilty and awarded damages in a sum of $ 500,000, which was affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court.

According to the relevant Alabama law, a publication was “libelous per se” if the words “tend to injure a person … in his reputation” or to “bring (him) into public contempt”.

The question raised before the United States Supreme Court was whether the said enactment abridged the freedom of speech and of the press guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

In the leading opinion delivered by Brennan, J., the learned Judge referred in the first instance to the earlier decisions of that court emphasising the importance of freedom of speech and of the press and observed:

“Authoritative interpretations of the First Amendment guarantees have consistently refused to recognize an exception for any test of truth whether administered by judges, juries, or administrative officials and especially one that puts the burden of proving the truth on the speaker. * * *

A rule compelling the critic of official conduct to guarantee the truth of all his factual assertions and to do so on pain of libel judgments virtually unlimited in amount- leads to… “self-censorship”. Allowance of the defense of truth, with the burden of proving it on the defendant, does not mean that only false speech will be deterred. Even courts accepting this defense as an adequate safeguard have recognized the difficulties of adducing legal proofs that the alleged libel was true in all its factual particulars….

Under such a rule, would-be critics of official conduct may be deterred from voicing their criticism, even though it is believed to be true and even though it is in fact true, because of doubt whether it can be proved in court or fear of the expense of having to do so. They tend to make only statements which ‘steer far wider of the unlawful zone’…. The rule thus dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate. It is inconsistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’ that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” (emphasis added)

Black, J. who was joined by Douglas, J. concurred in the opinion but on a slightly different ground. He affirmed his belief that

“the First and Fourteenth Amendments not merely ‘delimit’ a State’s power to award damages to ‘public officials against critics of their official conduct’ but completely prohibit a State from exercising such a power”.

The principle of the said decision has been held applicable to “public figures” as well. This is for the reason that public figures like public officials often play an influential role in ordering society. It has been held that as a class the public figures have, as the public officials have, access to mass media communication both to influence the policy and to counter-criticism of their views and activities.

On this basis, it has been held that the citizen has a legitimate and substantial interest in the conduct of such persons and that the freedom of press extends to engaging in uninhibited debate about the involvement of public figures in public issues and events.

[1] 376 U.S. 254 (1964)