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  • Writer's pictureMariana Navas

New York Times Company v. Sullivan

Can news sources ever be truly impartial?

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) was a landmark supreme court case ruling that the freedom of speech protections of the First Amendment to the U.S Constitution restrict the ability of American public citizens to sue for libel, a written false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation and is also widely known as defamation. The case began in 1960 after The New York Times published a full-page advertisement by supporters of Martin Luther King Jr. that criticized the police in Montgomery, Alabama for their mistreatment of civil rights protesters. The ad had various factual inaccuracies, such as the number of times Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested during the protests, the song the protestors sang, and if students had been expelled for participating in them. Following the ad, Montgomery police commissioner L. B. Sullivan sued The New York Times for libel.

Although this case took place decades ago, it made me think about the news of today. The first question that popped into my head was, “are news sources truly ever impartial?” Thinking in the setting of Montgomery, Alabama, out of fear of the opposition, newspapers would probably take a stance with the side that has the most public support. In this day and age, it is common to find news sources that are biased, and our dependency on technology has only heightened that.

In our ethics and morality class, we often talk about “absolute rights''--rights that cannot be interfered with under any circumstance. The fact that we have to go to the lengths of modifying the press in order to not receive backlash, or in this case, be sued for libel, makes me think that the freedoms of speech and press are not absolute. If we have to change what we believe in to not face a lawsuit, why is it free?

Attorneys in the New York Times v. Sullivan SCOTUS case. Image from the New York Times.

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