Libel Suits and Press Freedom

December 4, 1963

Report Outline
Growing Magnitude of Libel Awards
Basic Elements of the Law of Libel
Libel Suits and the First Amendment

Growing Magnitude of Libel Awards

Issues in Times Appeal of Alabama Judgment

The libel case from Alabama against the New York Times, appealed to the Supreme Court and to be argued before that tribunal in January, involves in essence the problem of protecting an individual's good name while allowing maximum freedom of expression in the press. The Times is seeking reversal of the judgment by a state court jury which in 1960 awarded damages of $500,000 to Police Commissioner L. B. Sullivan of Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. The jury determined that Sullivan had been libeled by a political advertisement which appeared in the New York newspaper during racial disturbances in Montgomery. The advertisement described the breaking up of a student demonstration by city police but did not refer to Police Commissioner Sullivan directly by name or office. Only 35 copies of the offending edition were circulated in Montgomery County, Alabama.

Briefs filed with the Supreme Court by the Times and by several newspapers as amici curiae argue that if the Alabama judgment is allowed to stand, the law of defamation will have been transformed from an instrumentality to protect private reputation into a device for insulating public authorities from legitimate criticism. The Supreme Court's finding may well decide the course of future libel actions stemming from racial trouble in the South. Suits based on the same Times advertisement have been filed by other Montgomery commissioners, by the city's mayor, and by James Patterson, who was Governor of Alabama at the time the advertisement appeared. Another $500,000 award has been made in one of these cases, in which a motion for a new trial is pending.

A different group of suits brought against the New York Times in Alabama courts—based on news stories by Harrison Salisbury reporting a reign of terror against Negroes in Birmingham—have been removed to federal court. Salisbury himself was indicted on 42 counts of criminal libel. At least five Alabama officials have filed libel actions, each asking damages of $500,000, against the Columbia Broadcasting System for its television coverage of the racial conflict in that state. Maj. Gen. Edwin A. Walker (Ret.) recently brought suit against a number of news organizations for a total of $23 million in damages for alleged libel in their accounts of his activities during the rioting over admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi in September 1962.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Journalism, Newspapers, and the Media
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May 30, 2014  Digital Journalism
May 03, 2013  Media Bias
Apr. 26, 2013  Free Speech at Risk
Apr. 12, 2013  Combat Journalism
Nov. 2010  Press Freedom
Oct. 08, 2010  Journalism Standards in the Internet Age
Feb. 05, 2010  Press Freedom
Mar. 27, 2009  Future of Journalism Updated
Jun. 09, 2006  Blog Explosion Updated
Jan. 20, 2006  Future of Newspapers
Apr. 08, 2005  Free-Press Disputes
Oct. 15, 2004  Media Bias
Oct. 10, 2003  Media Ownership Updated
Dec. 25, 1998  Journalism Under Fire
Jun. 05, 1998  Student Journalism
Sep. 20, 1996  Civic Journalism
Sep. 23, 1994  Courts and the Media
Aug. 24, 1990  Hard Times at the Nation's Newspapers
Jan. 19, 1990  Finding Truth in the Age of ‘Infotainment’
Aug. 18, 1989  Libel Law: Finding the Right Balance
Jun. 06, 1986  Magazine Trends
Oct. 12, 1984  News Media and Presidential Campaigns
Jul. 15, 1983  State of American Newspapers
Oct. 23, 1981  High Cost of Libel
Dec. 23, 1977  Media Reforms
Mar. 11, 1977  News Media Ownership
Jun. 21, 1974  Access to the Media
Dec. 20, 1972  Newsmen's Rights
Aug. 16, 1972  Blacks in the News Media
Dec. 15, 1971  Magazine Industry Shake-Out
Jul. 18, 1969  Competing Media
Sep. 02, 1964  Politicians and the Press
Dec. 04, 1963  Libel Suits and Press Freedom
Jan. 09, 1963  Newspaper Mergers
Dec. 20, 1961  Reading Boom: Books and Magazines
Dec. 02, 1959  Privileged Communications
Apr. 25, 1956  Newsprint Deficit
May 06, 1953  Government and the Press
Sep. 21, 1948  Press and State
Sep. 05, 1947  Newsprint Supply
Mar. 26, 1947  Facsimile Newspapers
Dec. 10, 1945  World Press Freedom
May 01, 1940  New Experiments in Newspaper-Making
Nov. 04, 1933  Press Freedom Under the Recovery Program
BROWSE RELATED TOPICS:
Freedom of Information
Freedom of Speech and Press