New York Times V. Sullivan: Civil Rights, Libel Law and the Free Press

By Carroll, Brian | Journalism History, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

New York Times V. Sullivan: Civil Rights, Libel Law and the Free Press


Carroll, Brian, Journalism History


Hall, Kermit L. and Melvin L. Urofsky. New York Times v. Sullivan: Civil Rights, Libel Law and the Free Press. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011. 222 pp. $34.95.

When he heard the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the landmark case, Times v. Sullivan, Alexander Meiklejohn declared the 6-3 ruling an occasion for dancing in the streets. In putting an end to the notion of seditious libel in this country and that there could even be such a thing as in the shadow of the First Amendment, the 1964 decision meant that citizens could say almost anything about a public person and their government, including something defamatory. This was reason enough for Meiklejohn, then ninety-two years old, to do a jubilatory jig.

Sometimes overlooked, however, at least in journalism and mass communication teaching, is the case's importance in the struggle for racial equality, the civil rights movement. When Justice William Brennan handed down his majority opinion on March 9, 1 964, one of the truly great opinions in what was an accomplished judicial cateer, Congress was debating the Civil Rights Act. As a series of high court decisions beginning with Brown v. Board of Education had done a decade before, Times v. Sullivan put on trial an established, even entrenched, way of life that assumed the inferior social and political position of black Americans.

Correcting the oversight is a new book begun by Kermit L. Hall and finished by Melvin I. Urofsky: New York Times v. Sullivan: Civil Rights, Libel Law and the Free Press, which is part of the University of Kansas' Landmark Law Cases & American Society series. In its chronologically ordered narrative, first in Montgomery and then in Washington, D. C, this history is careful to contextualize what in reality was a series of court cases by providing descriptions of Alabama's particular, peculiar social and cultural reality. Therefore, the authors demonstrate how law is, for better and for worse, a way for society to organize itself under or by a set of beliefs that are constitutive of that society. At the time of Times v. Sullivan, Alabama's notions of itself were in large part determined by or predicated upon race, an identity for which reputation and the defense of reputation were central. For the U.S. Supreme Court, by contrast, the country's larger society looked to it to determine - not review or consider but determine - the limits of constitutional protections for speech, press, and association when challenged or threatened by a state's laws.

Centered on a full-page protest advertisement placed in the New York Times in March 1960, which contained several errors of fact, the landmark court case has become a major point on several legal history timelines, including those for the First Amendment, libel law in the United States, state-level common law, and commercial speech.

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