Friday, April 14, 2017

L is for Libel

New York Times v Sullivan
[March 9, 1964, unanimous decision 9-0]

Libel comes from written speech.  Slander comes from oral speech.

The Plaintiff, L.B. Sullivan, one of three Public Safety Commissioners of Montgomery, Alabama, sued the Defendant, the New York Times Company, for printing an advertisement about the civil rights movement in the South that he said defamed the Plaintiff.  The Defendant claimed that it authorized publication of the advertisement because it did not have any reason to believe that its contents were false. However, there was no independent effort to check its accuracy.  In fact, it did contain some false statements.

Under Alabama law, Sullivan did not have to prove he had been harmed personally, and a defense claiming the ad was truthful was unavailable since the ad did in fact contain factual errors. The trial court ruled in favor of Sullivan and awarded him a $500,000 judgment.

The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are made with actual malice (with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity). Under this new standard, Sullivan's case collapsed.

A media defendant is not liable for libel regarding a public figure unless the media defendant printed an untruth maliciously or with reckless disregard to whether or not it was true.  Requires (1) media defendant and (2) public figure.  Once you have both of those requirements met, any written statement is not libel, even if it is false, unless the media defendant published the statement with “actual malice”, which means the knowledge that it was false, or with reckless disregard to whether it was true or false.

When we discussed this case in class, we spent quite a bit of time discussing various types of media, like whether it was a daily newspaper or a weekly news magazine.  A weekly has more time to verify its sources and facts, so it has a greater requirement to try to determine truth before publishing.  A daily can print something like “calls to NAME were not immediately returned” and it will have done its due diligence.  This is why you will read those types of statements in news articles, because the newspaper is covering itself to avoid a libel lawsuit in case their “facts” are not accurate.
Did you guess right?
Here's Saturday's hint - M is for Marbury, Madison, McCulloch, and Maryland.  Can you guess the cases and what they're about?  If you can't, look at the hint again.  Leave a comment!


  1. And thus is born the wonderful, wonderful movie "Absence of Malice." If you haven't seen it, find the time.

    The M case came in line right after Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing ... ah, never mind, I was going for a lame joke there and it's not panning out.

    I'm guessing M is something to do with state's rights vs. federal since "Maryland" is in the title?

    1. I haven't seen that movie but I'll definitely check it out now.

      And you're 2 for 13 now. Congrats!

  2. I was in politics for just over 20 years and this was explained to me by my lawyer friend, though I did not know the case name or circumstances. Once I left office I threatened to sue over misstatements made in an official report which stated that I had made certain errors while in office. They were actual lies and the portions were removed from the report. I think that no one thought I would actually read the report and they could get away with it. BTW, I hate most newspapers and reporters.

    1. When politicians think no one will actually read their reports, it makes you wonder why they took the time [and spent the money] to write them in the first place. But good for you that you caused the untruths to be removed from the report!