New York Times v. Sullivan

376 U.S. 254 (1964)


Sullivan (P) was a commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, and supervised the Police Department. After several civil rights demonstrations, the New York Times (D) published a full-page advertisement that included several false statements about the town. P sued D for damages and libel and recovered $500,000 in the trial court. The trial judge submitted the case to the jury under instructions that the statements in the advertisement were 'libelous per se,' and were not privileged so that petitioners might be held liable if the jury found that they had published the advertisement and that the statements were made 'of and concerning' respondent. The jury was instructed that, because the statements were libelous per se, 'the law . . . implies legal injury from the bare fact of publication itself,' 'falsity and malice are presumed,' 'general damages need not be alleged or proved, but are presumed,' and 'punitive damages may be awarded by the jury even though the amount of actual damages is neither found nor shown.' An award of punitive damages -- as distinguished from 'general' damages, which are compensatory in nature -- apparently requires proof of actual malice under Alabama law, and the judge charged that mere negligence or carelessness is not evidence of actual malice or malice in fact, and does not justify an award of exemplary or punitive damages. He refused to charge, however, that the jury must be 'convinced' of malice, in the sense of 'actual intent' to harm or 'gross negligence and recklessness,' to make such an award, and he also refused to require that a verdict for respondent differentiate between compensatory and punitive damages. In affirming the judgment, the Supreme Court of Alabama held that, where the words published tend to injure a person libeled by them in his reputation, profession, trade or business, or charge him with an indictable offense, or tend to bring the individual into public contempt, they are 'libelous per se'; that 'the matter complained of is, under the above doctrine, libelous per se, if it was published of and concerning the plaintiff', and that it was actionable without 'proof of pecuniary injury . . . . such injury being implied.' The court said that malice could be inferred from the Times' 'irresponsibility' in printing the advertisement while the Times, in its own files, had articles already published which would have demonstrated the falsity of the allegations in the advertisement. D appealed.