Mr. Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the Court.
We are required in this case to determine for the first time the extent to which the constitutional
protections for speech and press limit a State's power to award damages in a libel action brought
by a public official against critics of his official conduct.
Respondent L. B. Sullivan is one of the three elected Commissioners of the City of Montgomery,
Alabama. He testified that he was "Commissioner of Public Affairs and the duties are supervision
of the Police Department, Fire Department, Department of Cemetery and Department of Scales."
He brought this civil libel action against the four individual petitioners, who are Negroes and
Alabama clergymen, and against petitioner the New York Times Company, a New York
corporation which publishes the New York Times, a daily newspaper. A jury in the Circuit
Court of Montgomery County awarded him damages of $500,000, the full amount claimed,
against all the petitioners, and the Supreme Court of Alabama affirmed...
Respondent's complaint alleged that he had been libeled by statements in a full-page advertisement
that was carried in the New York Times on March 29, 1960. Entitled "Heed Their Rising
Voices," the advertisement began by stating that "As the whole world knows by now, thousands
of Southern Negro students are engaged in widespread non-violent demonstrations in positive
affirmation of the right to live in human dignity as guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution and the
Bill of Rights." It went on to charge that "in their efforts to uphold these guarantees, they are
being met by an unprecedented wave of terror by those who would deny and negate that
document which the whole world looks upon as setting the pattern for modern freedom..."
Succeeding paragraphs purported to illustrate the "wave of terror" by describing certain alleged
events. The text concluded with an appeal for funds for three purposes: support of the student
movement, "the struggle for the right-to-vote," and the legal defense of Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr., leader of the movement, against a perjury indictment then pending in Montgomery.
The text appeared over the names of 64 persons, many widely known for their activities in public
affairs, religion, trade unions, and the performing arts. Below these names, and under a line
reading "We in the south who are struggling daily for dignity and freedom warmly endorse this
appeal," appeared the names of the four individual petitioners and of 16 other persons, all but two
of whom were identified as clergymen in various Southern cities. The advertisement was signed at
the bottom of the page by the "Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for
Freedom in the South," and the officers of the Committee were listed.
Of the 10 paragraphs of text in the advertisement, the third and a portion of the sixth were the
basis of respondent's claim of libel. They read as follows:
"In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' on the State Capitol
steps, their leaders were expelled from school, and truckloads of police armed with shotguns and
tear-gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus. When the entire student body protested to
state authorities by refusing to re-register, their dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve
them into submission."
"Again and again the Southern violators have answered Dr. King's peaceful protests with
intimidation and violence. They have bombed his home almost killing his wife and child. They
have assaulted his person. They have arrested him seven times -- for "speeding," "loitering" and
similar "offenses." And now they have charged him with "perjury" -- felony under which they
could imprison him for ten years..."
Although neither of these statements mentions respondent by name, he contended that the word
"police" in the third paragraph referred to him as the Montgomery Commissioner who supervised
the Police Department, so that he was being accused of "ringing" the campus with police. He
further claimed that the paragraph would be read as imputing to the police, and hence to him, the
padlocking of the dining hall in order to starve the students into submission. As to the sixth
paragraph, he contended that since arrests are ordinarily made by the police, the statement "They
have arrested [Dr. King] seven times" would be read as referring to him; he further contended that
the "They" who did the arresting would be equated with the "They" who committed the other
described acts and with the "Southern violators." Thus, he argued, the paragraph would be read
as accusing the Montgomery police, and hence him, of answering Dr. King's protests with
"intimidation and violence," bombing his home, assaulting his person, and charging him with
perjury. Respondent and six other Montgomery residents testified that they read some or all of the
statements as referring to him in his capacity as Commissioner.
It is uncontroverted that some of the statements contained in the two paragraphs were not
accurate descriptions of events which occurred in Montgomery. Although Negro students staged
a demonstration on the State Capitol steps, they sang the National Anthem and not 'My Country,
'Tis of Thee.' Although nine students were expelled by the State Board of Education, this was not
for leading the demonstration at the Capitol, but for demanding service at a lunch counter in the
Montgomery County Courthouse on another day. Not the entire student body, but most of it, had
protested the expulsion, not by refusing to register, but by boycotting classes on a single day;
virtually all the students did register for the ensuing semester. The campus dining hall was not
padlocked on any occasion, and the only students who may have been barred from eating there
were the few who had neither signed a preregistration application nor requested temporary meal
tickets. Although the police were deployed near the campus in large numbers on three occasions,
they did not at any time "ring" the campus, and they were not called to the campus in connection
with the demonstration on the State Capitol steps, as the third paragraph implied. Dr. King has
not been arrested seven times, but only four; and although he claimed to have been assaulted some
years earlier in connection with his arrest for loitering outside a courtroom, one of the officers
who made the arrest denied that there was such an assault...
The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from
recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves
that the statement was made with "actual malice" -- that is with knowledge that it was false or
with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not...
Such a privilege for criticism of official conduct is appropriately analogous to the protection
accorded a public official when he is sued for libel by a private citizen...
We hold today that the Constitution delimits a State's power to award damages for libel in actions
brought by public officials against critics of their official conduct. Since this is such an action, the
rule requiring proof of actual malice is applicable. While Alabama law apparently requires proof of
actual malice for an award of punitive damages, where general damages are concerned malice is
"presumed." Such a presumption is inconsistent with the federal rule...
Applying these standards, we consider that the proof presented to show actual malice lacks the
convincing clarity which the constitutional standard demands, and hence that it would not
constitutionally sustain the judgment for respondent under the proper rule of law...
For good reason, "no court of last resort in this country has ever held, or even suggested, that
prosecutions for libel on government have any place in the American system of jurisprudence."
The present proposition would sidestep this obstacle by transmuting criticism of government,
however impersonal it may seem on its face, into personal criticism, and hence potential libel, of
the officials of whom the government is composed. There is no legal alchemy by which a State
may thus create the cause of action that would otherwise be denied for a publication which, as
respondent himself said of the advertisement, "reflects not only on me but on the other
Commissioners and the community." Raising as it does the possibility that a good-faith critic of
government will be penalized for his criticism, the proposition relied on by the Alabama courts
strikes at the very center of the constitutionally protected area of free expression. We hold that
such a proposition may not constitutionally be utilized to establish that an otherwise impersonal
attack on governmental operations was a libel of an official responsible for those operations. Since
it was relied on exclusively here, and there was no other evidence to connect the statements with
respondent, the evidence was constitutionally insufficient to support a finding that the statements
referred to respondent.
The judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama is reversed and the case is remanded to that
court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
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