Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 9

1964—Does the New York Times lack First Amendment rights because it is owned and operated by a corporation? The idiotic suggestion embedded in that question will confound New York Times editors decades later, but it properly plays no role in the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. Sullivan.

The Court unanimously overturns a libel judgment of $500,000 in punitive damages entered in favor of Montgomery (Alabama) city commissioner L.B. Sullivan against the New York Times Company and four black ministers whose names were attached to a full-page advertisement that protested against mistreatment of blacks in the South. But illustrating that racist facts generate bad law, the Court doesn’t limit itself to the solid ground that there was zero evidence that the allegedly libelous statements could plausibly have been understood to refer to Sullivan.

Instead, relying heavily on a 1908 Kansas supreme court case, Justice Brennan’s majority opinion invents the rule that the First Amendment “prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

Three justices would go even further—by recognizing an “unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs” (Black, joined by Douglas) and “an absolute, unconditional privilege to criticize official conduct despite the harm which may flow from excesses and abuses” (Goldberg, joined by Douglas).

Ed Whelan — Ed Whelan is a leading commentator on nominations to the Supreme Court and the lower courts and on issues of constitutional law.

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