New York Times v. Sullivan: Civil Rights, Libel Law, and the Free Press

Overview

Illuminating a classic case from the turbulent civil rights era of the 1960s, two of America's foremost legal historians—Kermit Hall and Melvin Urofsky—provide a compact and highly readable updating of one of the most memorable decisions in the Supreme Court's canon.

When the New York Times published an advertisement that accused Alabama officials of willfully abusing civil rights activists, Montgomery police commissioner Lester Sullivan filed suit for defamation. Alabama ...

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Overview

Illuminating a classic case from the turbulent civil rights era of the 1960s, two of America's foremost legal historians—Kermit Hall and Melvin Urofsky—provide a compact and highly readable updating of one of the most memorable decisions in the Supreme Court's canon.

When the New York Times published an advertisement that accused Alabama officials of willfully abusing civil rights activists, Montgomery police commissioner Lester Sullivan filed suit for defamation. Alabama courts, citing factual errors in the ad, ordered the Times to pay half a million dollars in damages. The Times appealed to the Supreme Court, which had previously deferred to the states on libel issues. The justices, recognizing that Alabama's application of libel law threatened both the nation's free press and equal rights for African Americans, unanimously sided with the Times.

As memorably recounted twenty years ago in Anthony Lewis's Make No Law, the 1964 decision profoundly altered defamation law, which the Court declared must not hinder debate on public issues even if it includes "vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." The decision also introduced a new First Amendment test: a public official cannot recover damages for libel unless he proves that the statement was made with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false.

Hall and Urofsky, however, place a new emphasis on this iconic case. Whereas Lewis's book championed freedom of the press, the authors here provide a stronger focus on civil rights and southern legal culture. They convey to readers the urgency of the civil rights movement and the vitriolic anger it inspired in the Deep South. Their insights place this landmark case within a new and enlightening frame.

This book is part of the Landmark Law Cases and American Society series.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Many legal historians see the landmark 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan—in which the Supreme Court ruled for the New York Times in its claim that criticism of the government and public officials is constitutionally protected—as the foundation of modern free press law. Before then, legal interpretations of the First Amendment had essentially left libel law up to state legislatures and courts. This book analyzes key events and people—the political ad at the center of the controversy, the various legal strategies, related legal actions and court decisions of the period, the history of libel law, and the legal landscape after Sullivan—all in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Hall (former president, SUNY at Albany) and Urofsky (history, emeritus, Virginia Commonwealth Univ.) have written extensively on law and public policy. Other books on this case include Anthony Lewis's well-known Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment. VERDICT This is enlightening reading. The book interweaves libel and First Amendment law with southern political culture and the Civil Rights Movement, showing how the Alabama legal and political establishment tried to use the courts to silence the media and hobble civil rights. Highly recommended.—Mary Jane Brustman, Univ. at Albany Libs., NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700618033
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 7/22/2011
  • Pages: 222
  • Sales rank: 831,187
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

The late Kermit L. Hall was president of SUNY-Albany and author, editor, or coeditor of more than two dozen books. He is best known for The Magic Mirror: Law in American History and The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court. Melvin I. Urofsky is professor emeritus of history and professor of law and public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University. Among his many books are the prizewinning Louis D. Brandeis: A Life; the two-volume March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States; and Money and Free Speech: Campaign Finance Reform and the Courts.

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