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An Introduction to Constitutional Law » New York Times v. Sullivan

An introduction to Constitutional Law 100 Supreme Court cases everyone should know

Randy E. Barnett & Josh Blackman

In March 1960, the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King published a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. The advertisement recounted how “thou- sands of Southern Negro students are engaged in wide-spread non-violent demonstrations . . . [and] they are being met by an unprecedented wave of terror.” The lead caption of the advertisement declared “Heed Their Rising Voices,” a phrase that was taken from a Times editorial. The advertisement was published as a means to obtain financial support. Readers were encouraged to mail a check to the Committee.

The advertisement, however, was factually inaccurate in at least three respects. First, the advertisement stated that African-American students “were expelled from school, and truckloads of police armed with shotguns and tear-gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus.” But the police never “ringed” the campus. Second, the advertisement stated that the student “dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission.” But the dining hall was never padlocked. Third, the advertisement stated that Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested “seven times.” That assertion was also inaccurate. King was only arrested four times.

L.B. Sullivan sued the Times for libel. He was one of the three elected Commissioners in Montgomery, Alabama. Sullivan sought $500,000 in damages.

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