When the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled that state libel laws had to comport with the First Amendment, the court also emphasized the importance of allowing citizens to criticize the government.
Justice William Brennan famously wrote for the court in the celebrated libel law decision New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964):
Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on 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.
The case involved The New York Times publishing an editorial advertisement in March 1960 titled, “Heed Their Rising Voices.” The ad criticized “Southern violators” of the civil rights of African-American students — whom the ad called “protagonists of democracy” — who protested against human rights abuses and segregation laws. Some of the ad focused on the mistreatment of students and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Montgomery, Ala.
The commissioner in charge of the police department, L.B. Sullivan, sued The New York Times in an Alabama state court for defamation even though he was not named in the advertisement. An all-white Alabama jury awarded Sullivan $500,000 in damages — a verdict upheld by the Alabama state appellate courts.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed and issued a landmark First Amendment decision. The court noted that “libel can claim no talismanic immunity from constitutional limitations” and instead such laws “must be measured by standards that satisfy the First Amendment.”
The court proceeded to find that public officials who sue for libel, like L.B. Sullivan, must meet a high standard of proof. They must show that the publisher printed the statements knowing they were false or acted with “reckless disregard.” Such was born the “actual malice” standard.
The essence of the ruling in Times v. Sullivan is that citizens have a First Amendment right to criticize government officials. This hallmark principle resonates throughout Justice Brennan’s opinion but perhaps most forcefully in his beautiful language that talks about a “profound national commitment,” “uninhibited, robust and wide open” debate” and “vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).