The ad did not mention any segregationist officials by name, but the leaders of the southern cities criticized for adding their “weight” to the obstruction of civil rights legislation were outraged. Montgomery’s police commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, took personal aff ront to the charge that his department had supported a “wave of terror,” and he filed suit against several of the clergymen who endorsed the statement, as well as the New York Times, which ran the advertisement. Sullivan claimed that the statement constituted libel, a fact backed by Alabama law, which called statements “libelous” if they sought “to injure a person [in] his reputation” or “to bring [him] into public contempt.” He believed that in describing how police armed with shotguns “ringed” the college campus in the wake of the sit-ins, the ad’s authors falsely implied that the violence was the result of the commissioner’s actions. State law did not require Sullivan to prove that he had been personally harmed by the accusations, so his implicit reading of the ad was applicable. Due to a factual error in the ad (which stated that King had been arrested seven times instead of four), the Times could not argue that the statement was inherently “true.” A state trial court agreed that Sullivan was the victim of implied malice, awarding him $500,000 in damages. The state supreme court affirmed the decision, and by January 1964, the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court.
On January 6, 1964, the nine justices, including Alabama’s own Hugo Black, heard arguments as to the constitutionality of Alabama’s libel laws. Yet the implications of New York Times v. Sullivan reached beyond state limits on the First Amendment right to free speech. In attacking the description of his department’s repression of civil rights protests in Montgomery, Sullivan challenged the ability of national news organizations to describe southern attempts to uphold segregation. With such a liberal definition of libelous speech, southern governments could feasibly prevent any national discussion of their second-class treatment of African Americans.
On March 9, the Court delivered its opinion, written by Justice William Brennan. The decision was unanimous. The justices agreed that Alabama’s libel law clearly threatened the free exchange of ideas in the public forum, particularly noting its requirement for complete factual inerrancy. As Brennan observed, “Under such a rule, would-be critics of official conduct may be deterred from voicing their criticism… because of doubt whether it can be proved in court or fear of the expense of having to do so.” Even non-factual statements had to be protected under the First Amendment, since they worked to encourage a more open forum for the exchange of ideas. Sullivan, as a “public official,” could only sue for libel if he could prove beyond a doubt that “the statement was made with ‘actual malice.’”
New York Times v. Sullivan was a landmark case in the Supreme Court’s definition of the protections guaranteed under the First Amendment. Brennan’s opinion warned that the Court would seek to preserve debate at almost any cost, particularly when concerning the actions of public officials. After Sullivan, leaders would find prosecuting critics nearly impossible. The decision was also an essential component of the civil rights movement. The Court defended the ability of the national press to bring to light the actions of southern segregationist governments, explicitly and implicitly encouraging violence as a means of resisting civil rights legislation. Activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and John Lewis relied on visual and print media to show the world the violence associated with civil rights activism in the South. With Sullivan, the Court ensured that the open forum of public debate would directly address the continued inequalities of life in the South.