The Times ran an advertisement
to help solicit funds to defend Martin Luther King Jr., who was being
prosecuted in Alabama. The ad criticized the Montgomery Alabama police,
and by implication, Sullivan, the city commissioner.
Turns out, some of the
allegations were factually untrue.
Sullivan was hurt by the
accusation and ended up suing the Times for defamation of character.
Under Alabama law, Sullivan
didn't have to show that he had actually been harmed, and that there was
no defense of free speech
available unless the allegations were true.
The Trial Court found for
Sullivan and awarded him $500k in damages, the Times appealed.
The Times argued that
allowing Sullivan to sue them for libel was an unconstitutional
infringement of their 1st Amendment right to free speech, even
though their allegations turned out to be false.
The Alabama Supreme Court
affirmed. The Times appealed.
The US Supreme Court reversed.
The US Supreme Court found
that the 1st Amendment
applies to all speech, even if it turns out that that speech contains
There is an exception.
Statements made with actual malice
are not protected.
Actual malice means with knowledge that the statements are
false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.
Basically, this case says that
if you publish something you think is true, and it turns out to be false,
you can't be sued for libel. But if you knowingly and maliciously publish something that is false, then you are
not protected by the 1st Amendment.
This was later narrowed to
only cover public figures. Dun
and Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc. (472 U.S. 749
(1985)), said that if you publish something about a private figure that turns out to be false, you can be sued, even though you thought it was true
at the time.