Richard Nisley

Civil Rights on Trial—New York Times v. Sullivan
History - American Released - Sep 02, 2018
Can a Supreme Court decision change the social fabric of the United States? That’s among the issues addressed in NEW YORK TIMES v. SULLIVAN: CIVIL RIGHTS, LIBEL LAW AND THE FREE PRESS, a book by Kermit L. Hall and Melvin I. Urofsky.

Here’s how the case came about. At the height of the civil rights movement, a New York City advocacy group ran a full-page ad in the New York Times entitled, “Heed Their Rising Voices.” The purpose of the ad was to create awareness and raise money for the civil rights movement in the South. The ad didn’t name individuals in its account of abuses, but it did mention specific Southern cities, including Montgomery, Alabama. The irony is that practically no one in the state of Alabama—where circulation of the Times was less than 400 copies statewide—was aware of the ad until an assistant editor of the Montgomery Advertiser brought it to the attention of the Montgomery city attorney. In turn, he shared it with three public officials, including the commissioner of the Alabama police department—Lester Sullivan.

Sullivan and the all-white city staff were deeply offended. The honor of Montgomery civic leaders was under attack—by radical outsiders. Southern honor (that and the prospect of bankrupting the civil rights movement in the South) induced Sullivan to file suit for defamation. A Montgomery court agreed and after an appeal to the Alabama State Supreme Court failed, the New York Times Times was ordered to pay a whopping half-million dollars in damages. In a companion case, four members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (all ministers) were sued for having allowed their names to be listed as endorsees of the ad’s content, even though they had not approved the use of their names and, in fact, had no previous knowledge of the ad until it appeared in the New York Times.

The Times appealed to the United States Supreme Court for redress, and in a precedent-setting decision the Court overruled the lower court's decision. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice William Brennan declared Alabama’s Supreme Court decision–if allowed to stand–would have a chill effect on public debate, which was contrary to the First Amendment. Public discussion is not always polite or accurate, Brennan wrote. It can get nasty and messy and loud, but it still must be protected. Debate in public issues “should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

As a direct result of the 1964 Supreme Court ruling, the civil rights movement was able to continue its work in the South. That, coupled with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, would result in widespread voter registrations among African Americans, and the integration of all-white public offices such as the Montgomery city hall and the Montgomery police department.

Also brought about by the Court’s decision was a transformation of white Southern mores. In many respects, the South before the civil rights era retained many of the aspects of a feudal society, where the honor of public officials was never called into question, indeed, was considered above reproach and necessary for preserving law and order in the community. In such a society slander and libel was not tolerated because it might undermine respect for authority. “The laws of defamation have their roots in English feudal society, and grew out of an attempt to prevent violence,” writes the author. “In an era when the personal bonds rather than a powerful state held society together an attack on the good name of one feudal lord constituted an assault on the basis of society.”

Southern leadership fought the civil rights movement because it offended their sense of honor and threatened their long-standing hierarchy of white supremacy. The industrial North—a vast unsettled melting pot of peoples and ideas—dispatched with such quaint notions when it entered the Industrial Age. Honor mattered less in a teeming dynamic society where fortunes were won and lost overnight; it was an individual’s reputation that mattered in the busy marketplace. In the South, where land was still the measure of wealth and honor rather than reputation was the norm, libel laws were strictly enforced.

If nothing else, New York Times v. Sullivan brought Southern libels laws in line with modern society. But it did more than that. It put the Old South on the road to ending 100 years of social and political injustice to a large segment of Southern society.

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