The restructured First Amendment celebrated its 50-year anniversary on March 9, a reminder of the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case and the impact it had in promoting freedom of speech. The ruling went to The New York Times, which changed the First Amendment and paved the way for opinionated journalism as we know it today.
The updated First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that it prohibits abridging the freedom of speech and infringing on the freedom of the press. So basically, writers such as Michael Hastings, Glenn Greenwald, and Sonia Poulton would not have been able to let their voices be heard without massive restrictions defining what they were allowed to say on paper. Criticisms about governments, corrupt leaders, or explicit details from traumatized war veterans would not be allowed to be composed in any medium, verbal or written without the Sullivan verdict.
The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case was based on a political article titled Heed Their Rising Voices that criticized Southern officials for their hostile reaction to the constitutional rights protests. The advertisement had signatures from civil rights leaders at the bottom and was erroneous in a few areas, but did not implicate any official by name.
Montgomery, Alabama Public Safety Commissioner L.B. Sullivan was infuriated by the article and requested that The Times retract the advertisement publicly. When the The Times declined, he sued them as well as four African American ministers who had signed the document under Alabama’s libel law. He disputed that The Times and the civil rights leaders who supported the expose had insulted him and could not successfully argue the “truth” in resistance to the claim because of the small errors in the article.
The court said the public official suing for slander had to prove that the defendant published an inaccurate statement about said official and did so with malice. For example, journalists who made an honest mistake about officials or representatives would not be held accountable for those errors.
The Alabama state court ruled against The New York Times which was then appealed to The Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously for The Times, reversing the libel verdict and revising the First Amendment and promoting the freedom of speech. Fifty years later, journalists across the nation celebrate this victory and rejoice for their ability to speak their opinions on paper without censorship.
Justice Louis Brandeis said it best: “It is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination…”
The Supreme Court decided that Alabama’s libel law constructed a type of self-censorship by journalists that was not consistent with The First Amendment doctrine. A public official claiming slander against him would have to exhibit that the person publishing the material knew the information was false or printed the data regardless of its truth. The justices also stated that no court in the nation has ever suggested that indictments for libel against the government hold any bearing in the American justice system.
The modified First Amendment celebrates 50 years and promotes freedom of speech to all journalists, lawyers, poets, TV reporters, and anyone who publicly decides to share their opinion with others. Americans should be grateful that they are allowed to openly express their personal views without having to worry about ominous consequences.
Editorial by Amy Nelson
Forbes: The Landmark Libel Case, Times v. Sullivan, Still Resonates 50 Years Later
The Fire: ‘New York Times v. Sullivan’ Decided 50 Years Ago
The Atlantic: Today Is the 50th Anniversary of the (Re-)Birth of the First Amendment