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Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment

Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment

by Anthony Lewis

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The First Amendment puts it this way: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Yet, in 1960, a city official in Montgomery, Alabama, sued The New York Times for libel — and was awarded $500,000 by a local jury — because the paper had published an ad critical of Montgomery's brutal response to civil rights protests


The First Amendment puts it this way: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Yet, in 1960, a city official in Montgomery, Alabama, sued The New York Times for libel — and was awarded $500,000 by a local jury — because the paper had published an ad critical of Montgomery's brutal response to civil rights protests. The centuries of legal precedent behind the Sullivan case and the U.S. Supreme Court's historic reversal of the original verdict are expertly chronicled in this gripping and wonderfully readable book by the Pulitzer Prize — winning legal journalist Anthony Lewis. It is our best account yet of a case that redefined what newspapers — and ordinary citizens — can print or say.<

Editorial Reviews

Jerry Goldman
MAKE NO LAW by Anthony Lewis is an absorbing study of a landmark First Amendment case, THE NEW YORK TIMES V. SULLIVAN (376 U.S. 254 (1964)). In 1960, a full-page ad in the New York Times alleged that the arrest of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for perjury in Alabama was part of a campaign to destroy King's efforts to integrate public facilities and encourage blacks to vote. L. B. Sullivan, the Montgomery, Alabama city commissioner, filed a libel action against the newspaper and four black ministers who were listed as endorsers of the ad, claiming that the allegations against the Montgomery police defamed him personally. Under Alabama law, Sullivan did not have to prove that he had been harmed. A defense claiming that the ad was truthful was unavailable since the ad contained factual errors. Sullivan won a $500,000 judgment. The Times appealed through the Alabama courts, but continued to lose. Its last chance was an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. In his opinion for a unanimous Court, William J. Brennan, Jr. argued that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when such statements are made with actual malice (with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity). Under this new standard, Sullivan's case collapsed. The decision also energized a new view of the First Amendment, one that now accommodates expression that challenges the existing order. When reading the Sullivan case today, one might see its conclusion as a natural progression of First Amendment principles. But that was decidedly not the case when the Times recognized that it was vulnerable to libel actions that would likely impair its ability to function. A crucial player in the effort to reverse the Alabama courts was Professor Herbert Wechsler. Legal insiders -- commentators, judges, and law teachers -- know of Wechsler's fundamental contributions to the study of federal courts and federalism. Through Lewis's portrait of Wechsler, legal outsiders will also grasp his genius, his masterful line of attack, and the "sea change" in First Amendment thinking occasioned by the Sullivan case and Wechsler's vital contribution to it. Sullivan stands out as the single most important case in the extraordinary career of Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. Lewis had access to Brennan's files enabling a dramatic reconstruction of the decision from the inside. Beyond the drafts and comments common to scholars who trudge through judges' papers, Brennan followed a practice that proved to be extraordinarily valuable to Lewis, and by implication, to others seeking to pierce the veil of secrecy that shrouds the Court. For his thirty-four years on the Court, Brennan had his law clerks write accounts of the process of decision whenever Brennan played a significant part. The clerk's account Page 31 follows: in the Sullivan case enabled Lewis to explain the process of opinion-writing and coalition-building. It took eight drafts, and much persuasion, to move the Brethren to act unanimously. Lewis demonstrates that Brennan's majority view was in jeopardy, belying the sense of agreement among the five justices who joined in Brennan's final draft. (Black and Goldberg wrote separate concurrences; Douglas joined each of them.) Many of us have relied on Lewis's splendid book, GIDEON'S TRUMPET, to impart a sense of drama and realism to the world of constitutional law and politics. But GIDEON'S TRUMPET has been showing its age. Will Lewis's new work be an acceptable substitute? The Sullivan case imposes higher start-up costs. The facts are more complicated, the principles are more abstract, the interests at issue are less tangible, the historical context is more complex. For introductory classes in political science, I doubt that this new effort will come off well. In upper division classes in civil liberties, the story is compelling and comprehensive. However, it may prove too elementary by collapsing a vast body of First Amendment jurisprudence into the span of a few chapters. Perhaps MAKE NO LAW has a place in judicial process courses. In the end, it remains the story of a single landmark decision. Lewis makes his share of mistakes; some of them are worth addressing. In seeking to instruct the reader on the life spans of constitutional decisions, Lewis rightly points out that the Court can and does reverse itself and that constitutional amendments may also serve to reverse the Court. To illustrate the latter, Lewis offers his readers the amendment that overturned the Court's holding that the government could not issue paper money (89). However, there is no such amendment. Perhaps Lewis was referring to Amendment XVI, which gave approval to a national income tax and thereby overturned the Court's decision in POLLACK V. FARMERS LOAN & TRUST (1895). However, Lewis's chapter notes lack sufficient detail to clarify his illustration. Lewis also engages in some serious distortions of text and fact that cast doubt on his objectivity. Lewis maintains that Brennan held the Sedition Act of 1798 unconstitutional in the Sullivan case. Brennan's opinion reviewed the history of the Sedition Act and observed the weight of power-houses lined up against its validity. (No Court had held the Act unconstitutional; the act expired in 1801.) Brennan then summarized this evidence: "These views reflect a broad consensus that the Act, because of the restraint it imposed upon criticism of government and public officials, was inconsistent with the First Amendment." Lewis leaps from this statement to the claim that Brennan had held the 1798 Act invalid.(145) Brennan's statement is a generous summary of the evidence. Notable dissents by Holmes, Brandeis, and Robert Jackson must be weighed against the silence of other justices to support the invalidity argument. Even granting that there probably was broad consensus on the Act's invalidity does not transform such consensus into a decision that the Act was invalid. Therefore, it is a distortion of Brennan's language to maintain that he was declaring or holding for the Court that the Sedition Act was unconstitutional. Page 32 follows: Lewis has also taken liberties with the facts surrounding the flag-burning issue. Lewis notes that the expansive view of the First Amendment exemplified in the Sullivan case was jeopardized by a proposed constitutional amendment to protect the American flag. Lewis observes that following the second flag-burning case (UNITED STATES V. EICHMAN), the proposed amendment "got nowhere in Congress."(243) The facts cast a different impression. The amendment won passage in the Senate and nearly won approval in the House. It failed by a vote of 254-177, 34 votes shy of the required two-thirds approval. This is hardly "going nowhere" since few proposed amendments make it to this stage. Lewis then goes on to speculate on the reasons for the failure of the amendment. Lewis speculates: "Perhaps Americans, or enough of them, came to agree with Justice Holmes that `we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death.'"(243) Again, the evidence casts a different impression. A front-page story in the New York Times in June 1990 reported that a clear majority of Americans favored the amendment.(New York Times, 12 June 1990, p.A1) Surely a look to the public opinion data would have given a different spin to Lewis's tale along the following lines: While most Americans favored a limit on free expression in law or in the Constitution, civil libertarians operating within a pluralist democracy mobilized sufficient opposition to trump majority will. Anthony Lewis has a proud record as a civil libertarian. He has been a staunch defender of free expression, and this readable and articulate book is a demonstration of his civil libertarian faith. His position is that free expression trumps most (perhaps all) order claims that government may assert in an effort to restrict vigorous debate on public issues. In the conflict between freedom and order, Lewis defends freedom. I wish, however, that Lewis had explored the more difficult dilemma stemming from some feminist legal thinkers like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon. They argue that some forms of expression deny equality, especially to women. They cast a freedom-versus-order conflict into a freedom-versus-equality claim. When faced with this choice, many liberals find either horn problematic. Lewis leaves us in the dark on this conflict, though he had an opening in his discussion of the obscenity issue, which he addresses at various points in his book. While not central to his thesis, this issue engages many liberals and conservatives and it would have prefigured the new area of debate in the free expression domain. But this is to indict Lewis for an issue he did not raise. Perhaps it will force another examination of freedom of expression by Lewis or others. For the moment, however, free expression and the First Amendment remain secure in Lewis's accomplished hands.
From the Publisher
“A riveting detailed account...[Make No Law] is nothing less than a comprehensive history of free speech in America.”—Philadelphia Inquirer

“Superbly written... a compelling drama that clearly places the Sullivan decision in the context of the court's still evolving notions of free speech and fully illuminates the constitutional principles at stake...an essential guide.” —Boston Globe

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st ed

Meet the Author

Anthony Lewis was a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who transformed American legal journalism. He is the author of Gideon’s Trumpet which concerned Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 decision that guaranteed lawyers to poor defendants charged with serious crimes. His book Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment is an account of New York Times v. Sullivan, the 1964 Supreme Court decision that revolutionized American libel law. Lewis was a New York Times reporter at the Supreme Court from 1957 to 1964 and wrote an Op-Ed column for thirty years called “At Home Abroad” or “Abroad at Home” depending on where he was writing from . He also taught at the Harvard Law School where he was a Lecturer on Law from 1974 to 1989. He has also been the James Madison Visiting Professor at Columbia University. Anthony Lewis died in 2013 at the age of 85.

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