MALICE WITHOUT WIT
And people say, "Why are you poking your nose into somebody else's business?" My response is, "It's not somebody else's business. It's your business we're poking into. Aren't you interested in our finding out for you what's going on?"
-- Arthur Sulzberger Sr., former publisher and chairman of the board, New York Times
The 1964 Supreme Court Case New York Times v. Sullivan is a tale often told wherever journalism is taught, criticized, adjudicated, or reexamined in the context of the First Amendment. The simple language that prohibited Congress from making any law abridging the "freedom . . . of the press" had become the head of a pin on which numberless angels danced. The plasticity of the American Constitution may have been part of James Madison's vision, but the translation of "majestic generalities" into twentiethcentury principles was given one of its most sweeping interpretations by Justice Brennan when he led the Court to a decision that institutionalized "uninhibited, robust and wide open" debate on public issues. The Court's watershed judgment overruling the Alabama Supreme Court decision -- which had found the New York Times guilty of libel and placed a price tag of $500,000 on that alleged transgression -- finally ensured the demise of the 1798 Sedition Act. "The attack upon its validity has," Justice Brennan wrote, "carried the day in the court of history."1 It also set the compass for the turbulent future of free speech and press in America.
Remarkably enough, the issues were wrested not out of reportage but out of a full-page paid advertisement that had run in the New York Times on March 29, 1960. The ad was primarily an appeal for funds to pay the legal fees necessary to defend Martin Luther King Jr., support embattled black students in Alabama, and underwrite the "struggle for the right to vote." Civil