New York Times v. Sullivan

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Opinion of the Supreme Court, March 9, 1964 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .476

Page 354


Freedoms of Speech and Press


In this section, the reader is invited to study the court opinions and briefs* that shaped a major facet of First Amendment law. As you read the following pages, you may wish to consider these issues:

What were the inaccuracies upon which Sullivan's claims of libel were based?

What about the advertisement made Sullivan believe it was directed at him?

How did the descriptions of the issues before the Court, and of their significance, differ as presented by the different parties?

What facts and legal principles did the Alabama Supreme Court rely on for its decision, and how was the U.S. Supreme Court's approach different?

What sorts of misstatements about a government official do you think would be permissible, and impermissible, under this case?

*The Court heard the cases between Sullivan and the Times, and Sullivan and the four clergymen, together. Both sets of briefs are included.

Opinion of the Supreme Court of Alabama, August 30, 1962

Page 355

New York Times Company v Sullivan

CITE AS 144 SO.2D 25




3 DIV. 961.

Supreme Court of Alabama.

Aug. 30, 1962.

Suit for libel against nonresident, corporate, newspaper publisher and others. The Circuit Court, Montgomery County, Walter B. Jones, J., entered a judgment for the plaintiff and the defendants appealed. The Supreme Court, Harwood, J., held that the publication of libelous matter in another state and the distribution of such matter within Alabama gave rise to a cause of action for libel in Alabama, and the evidence justified an award of $500,000 damages.


Activities of foreign corporation, which published newspaper and sent representatives into Alabama to solicit advertisements and gather news stories, were amply sufficient to meet minimal standards required for service of process in libel suit on corporation's resident "stringer" correspondent who was paid only for such articles as were accepted by corporation. Laws 1953, p. 347.

Statute providing for substituted service on nonresident corporations fully meets requirements of due process. Laws 1953, p. 347.

Affidavit filed by plaintiff, suing foreign newspaper corporation for libel, stated, sufficient facts to invoke statute providing substituted service on nonresident corporation. Laws 1953, p. 347.

Legislature's purpose in calling for affidavit to invoke substituted service statute was not to require detailed quo modo of business done but to furnish Secretary of Stare with sufficient information so that he could perform duties imposed on him. Laws 1953, p. 347.

Ultimate determination of whether nonresident corporation has done business in state or performed work or services in state, and whether cause of action accrues from such acts, thereby coming within substituted service statute, is judicial and not ministerial. Laws 1953, p. 347.

When nonresident prints libel beyond boundaries of state and distributes published libel in Alabama, cause of action for libel arises in Alabama as well as in state of printing or publishing of libel.

Where foreign newspaper corporation published libelous advertisement in New York and sent its papers into Alabama with carrier as its agent, freight prepaid, and with title passing on delivery to consignee, cause of action for libel arose from acts of newspaper in Alabama. Code 1940, Tit. 57, § 25; Laws 1953, p. 347.

Scope of substituted service is as broad as permissible limits of due process. Laws 1953, p. 347.

Nonresident corporation, by including in motion to quash service of process, prayer that court dismiss action as to corporation for lack of jurisdiction of subject matter of action, went beyond question of jurisdiction over corporate person and made a general appearance which waived any defects in service of process and submitted its corporate person to jurisdiction of court.

Pleading based on lack of jurisdiction of person are in their nature pleas in abatement which find no special favor in law, are purely dilatory and amount to no more than declaration that defendant is in court in proper action, after actual notice, but because of defect in service he is not legally before court.

Where words published tend to injure person libeled by them in his reputation, profession, trade or business, or charge him with indictable offense, or tend to bring individual into public contempt words are libelous per se.

Publication is not to be measured by its effect when subjected to critical analysis of trained legal mind, but must be construed and determined by its natural and probable effect upon mind of average lay reader.

Impersonal reproach of indeterminate class is not actionable but if words may by any reasonable application import charge against several defendants, under some general description of general name, it is for jury to decide whether charge has personal application averred by plaintiff.

Court would judicially know that City of Montgomery operates under commission form

Page 356

of government and that by provision of statute executive and administrative powers are distributed into departments of public health and public safety; streets, parks and public property and improvements; accounts, finances, and public affairs; and that assignments of commissioners may be changed at any time by majority of board. Laws 1931, p. 30; Code 1940, Tit. 37, § 51.

It is common knowledge that average person knows that municipal agents such as police and firemen are under control and direction of city governing body, and more particularly under direction and control of a single commissioner. Code 1940, Tit. 37, § 51.

Advertisement which falsely recounted activities of city police on college campus and elsewhere was libelous per se, and libelous matter was of and connected with plaintiff police commissioner.

Where advertisement was libelous per se it was not necessary to allege special damages and complaint could be very simple and brief and there was no need to set forth innuendo.

Complaint referring to false advertisement concerning police activities was sufficient to state a cause of action for libel in favor of plaintiff police commissioner.

Broad right of parties to interrogate jurors as to interest or bias is limited by propriety and pertinence and is exercised within sound discretion of trial court. Code 1940, Tit. 30, § 52.

Refusal to allow newspaper sued for libel to ask certain questions of jury venire as to bias...

To continue reading