Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

To what extent does the First Amendment protections for speech and press limit a state's power to award damages in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct?


Reversed and remanded. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.


Sullivan, a Commissioner of the City of Montgomery, Alabama, brought a civil libel suit against the publisher of the New York Times and four individual black clergymen in Alabama for running an ad in the paper. The ad described police action against student demonstrators and a leader of the civil rights movement. Some of the statements in the ad were false. A lower court found in favor of Sullivan, awarding him damages of $500,000.

Importance of Case

A public official cannot recover damages in a civil libel suit relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with actual malice. Actual malice is defined as “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false.”

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