A false and defamatory statement concerning another;
The unprivileged publication of the statement to a
third party (that is, somebody other than the person
defamed by the statement);
If the defamatory matter is of public concern, fault
amounting at least to negligence on the part of the
Damage to the plaintiff.
Defamation: Two Types
Libel- Written defamation; “Libel” is the term applied to
cases of publication, such as print, broadcast and other
Slander- Oral defamation; Spoken “falsities”
In both types the info must always be false. If there is any
truth to the claim, then the defamation defense will not
It states in our textbook, that during a libel case, the
person who claims libel against them must prove
1. Publication- the info must have been communicated
to at least one person
2. Identification- he/she must prove they were
identified in the case
3. Damaged Reputation- in one way or another
4. Fault- the party did or did not do something they
In the case of a public person they must prove “actual
quot;actual malicequot; is defined as proof that the statement
was made with quot;knowledge that it was false or with
reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.quot;
This case involves:
Libel- written defamation
Freedom of the press
Actual malice- statements that were published with
the knowledge that they were untrue and also with
wreckless disregard for the truth
In 1960 a group of civil rights activists took out a full
page ad called, “Heed Their Rising Voices,” in the New
York Times to garner support for Dr. Martin Luther
The ad cost $4800 and served 3 purposes
1. The defense of Dr. King for defense against perjury
2. Support for students fighting for civil rights in the
3. “The struggle for the right to vote”
The ad included a paragraph describing specific events
such as the:
Montgomery, AL incident in which the students sang
“My Country Tis’ of Thee” on the Capitol steps and
were approached by truckloads of police with tear gas
The ad also included charges against the Montgomery
police of terrorist acts and said they were intimidating
all the leaders who were rising in the South.
Sullivan, the commissioner over the Montgomery Police
Department, and four other commissioners filed
$500,oo0 libel suits against the Times.
April 8, 1960
Alabama Attorney General MacDonald Gallion was
quoted as saying, “We are sick and tired of of slanted
and warped attacks on the state of Alabama.”
He added the ad contained, “viscious, unfounded and
Times attorney, Eric Embry, tried to have the chareges
dismissed on the defenses of:
Identification- He claimed Sullivan was not specifically
identified in the ad, so there was no libel.
Damaged Reputation- Sullivan admitted that he lost no
compensation, was not threatened with removal of
office, and he was neither shunned nor ostracized.
November 1, 1960
The case goes to trial in the Alabama courts.
The judge Walter Jones, in instructions to the jury, ruled
that the ad was libelous, and therefore was presumed
to be false and published with malice.
The jury should not read the ad critically, but, “as the
average, reasonable and normal person of ordinary
intelligence in the community would read it.”
November 3, 1960
The jury returned a verdict for Sullivan in the amount of
$500, 000: exactly what he had asked for
Sullivan had won this round
From trial court to Supreme Court
The Alabama Supreme Court was called on from the
appeal of the New York Times and their attorneys
claiming First Ammendment rights of freedom of the
They affirmed the verdict stating, “The First
Ammendment of the Constitution does not protect
libelous publications…the ammendment is directed
against State action, not private action.”
Alabama Supreme Court
“Justice demands that Alabama be permitted to protect
its citizens from tortious libels”
“Words that tend to injure a person in his reputation,
profession, trade or business…or that bring him into
public contempt are libelous, per se.”
The U.S. Supreme Court
The decision was overturned
on the basis of:
1. Lack of actual malice
2. That Sullivan himself was
not libeled in the ad
3. The editors of the Times
had no reason to believe
the ad was untrue
U.S. Supreme Court
Justice William Brennan:
“It is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind ,
although not always with perfect, good taste, on all
“Would-be critics of official conduct may be deterred
from voicing their criticism, even though it is believed
to be true.”
Godwin, Mike (1994). Libel, Public Figures and The Net. Retrieved April
26, 2009 from
Hopkins, W. Wat (1989). Actual Malice, Twenty-five year after Times vs
Sullivan, 2, 11-24.
Larson, Aaron (2008). Defamation, Libel, and Slander Law. Retrieved
April 27, 2009 from
Lewis, Anthony (1991). Make No Law, The Sullivan Case and the First
Ammendment, 1, 6-14.
Stovall, James Glen (2004). Web Journalism, Practice and Promise of a
New Medium, 12 204-206.
Q and A:
I briefed the following students on my case and the
basics of libel and defamation, then asked them 8
questions. Here are their answers.
Lauren Scheinberg- PR
Joel Garner- Finance
Matthew Shelley- Business Management
What is your definition of
LS- When you take someone’s reputation and ruin it,
like in the paper or just saying something false about
JG- Someone saying unproven, slanderous things about
MS- When you spread slanderous or false information
Do you think private people should be held to the
same standards as public people in terms of
LS- No, if you’re not making a living off of other people,
like celebrities and movie stars then you shouldn’t be
held in the same light.
JG- No, why should they. I think the rules are just fine.
MS- If one person is public, then all should be public,
but I’m kind of riding the fence.
Do you think it’s fair that public persons have to show
“actual malice” in order to win a libel suit?
LS- Not really, just because there wasn’t actual malice
doesn’t mean the person wasn’t defamed. They still
could have their reputation damaged and they could
suffer for that.
JG- Yes, I mean they put themselves out there and have
to cover their tracks.
MS- Yes, I believe they should have to prove it,
especially if they are trying to get money.
Do you believe people in the public eye should be open to
criticism even if it’s not true?
LS- Yes, like I said, they make a living in the public eye
and have to deal with the consequences.
JG- Yes if they put themselves out there then they have
to be prepared to suffer the consequences.
MS- If they’re playing off the public, then they need to
be put under criticism and expect it.
In my case, The NY Times vs Sullivan the Alabama courts ruled in
favor of Sullivan, but it was overturned by the US Supreme Court,
do you agree? Why/why not?
LS- No, newspapers are supposed to support fact,
otherwise its nothing but a tabloid. They could ruin
someone and not have to pay any consequences.
JG- No, I think if you’re going to defame a whole police
department with false evidence then then you should
have to pay.
MS- They shouldn’t have to pay because no one was
named specifically, but the Times shouldn’t have runn
Should the newspaper have been held liable although they had no
reason to believe the info they received was false? Why/why not?
LS- Yes, they need to check the facts because when I
read the newspaper I usually believe everything as fact
unless it’s the editorial or opinion section.
JG- Yes, they need to check their sources better and
make sure all the facts in the ad were correct.
MS- Yes the newspaper has a responsibility of making
sure the things they run are truthful.
You being a private person, would you seek damages if
you felt you had been libeled against?
LS- Yes, because they have no business writing about
me unless I did something to deserve it. If they cause
me to have major changes in my life they need to pay.
JG- Yeah, if anyone publishes anything false about me,
then I’m suing.
MS- If it ended up hurting the business I was in then I
would, but if it was harmless then I wouldn’t want to
draw a lot of attention to it.
With bloggers and internet web sites do you think defamation
claims will slow, remain the same, or grow?
LS- I think they will grow, but also the people will have a
hard time winning the cases, because I never really believe
anything I read on the internet unless its from a
respectable news site.
JG- Of course, people can now say whatever they want about
people so you have to expect that there will be more and
MS- Yes, anyone with a computer can put out false
information and that only makes it more likely to happen
in the future.
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