The Supreme Court of the United States on 9 March 1964, in an attempt to bring order and cohesion to the jurisprudence of libel, extended citizens everywhere a constitutional privilege to falsely defame public officials. The privilege, however, was conditional. As declared by the Court in the case of New York Times v. Sullivan, it existed only so long as the false libels were about officials' public conduct and were published without actual malice. And actual malice was defined as knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of falsity.1 The burden of proving the knowing or reckless falsehood, the Court said, was on the officials who brought damage suits for libel.
In effect, the Court had issued a new character of freedom to allow people to make misstatements of fact in even scandalous, contemptuous criticism of public officials. And the charter, based on free speech and press guarantees in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, was made binding on the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.2 It had to be enforced with uniformity and conformity in state and federal courts throughout the nation.
The new nationwide standard of libel propounded in New York Times v. Sullivan resulted from a full-page advertisement that the Supreme Court described as an "expression of grievance and protest on one of the major public issues of our time."3 The New York Times advertisement, entitled "Heed Their Rising Voices," concerned the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama, and asked the public to help Southern Negroes in their efforts to achieve human dignity. It said Negroes were being met with a "wave of terror by those who would negate the Constitution and the Bill of Rights." Several paragraphs were included to illustrate the wave