MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. , was arrested in Alabama in 1960 on a perjury charge. In New York a group of entertainers and civil rights activists formed a committee to help finance King's defense. They placed a full-page advertisement in the New York Times appealing for contributions. The ad charged that King's arrest was part of a campaign to destroy King's leadership of the movement to integrate public facilities and encourage blacks in the South to vote.
It asserted that "Southern violators" in Montgomery had expelled King's student followers from college, ringed the campus with armed police, padlocked the dining hall to starve them into submission, bombed King's home, assaulted his person, and arrested him seven times for speeding, loitering, and other dubious offenses.
L. B. Sullivan, a city commissioner of Montgomery, filed a libel action in state court against the Times and four black Alabama ministers whose names had appeared as endorsers of the ad. He claimed that because his duties included supervision of the Montgomery police, the allegations against the police defamed him personally.
Under the common law as it existed in Alabama and most other states, the Times had little chance of winning. Whether the statements referred to Sullivan was a fact issue; if the jury found that readers would identify him, it was immaterial that the ad did not name him. Because the statements reflected adversely on Sullivan's professional reputation they were "libelous per se"; that meant he need not prove that he actually had been harmed. The defense of truth was not available because the ad contained factual errors (for example, police had not "ringed the campus," though they had been deployed nearby; King had been arrested four times, not seven). A few states recognized a privilege for good faith errors in criticism of public officials, but Alabama was among the majority that did not.
The jury awarded Sullivan $500,000. In the Alabama Supreme Court, the Times argued such a judgment was inconsistent with FREEDOM OF THE PRESS, but that court merely repeated what the United States Supreme Court had often said: "The First Amendment of the United States Constitution does not protect libelous publications."
When the case reached the Supreme Court in 1964, it was one of eleven libel claims, totaling $5,600,000, pending against the Times in Alabama. It was obvious that libel suits were being used to discourage the...