1964 March 9

“Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-open”: The Meaning of the First Amendment

 

The Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan was one of many cases arising from the Civil Rights Movement that had a profound impact on the course of American constitutional law. Decided together with Abernathy v. Sullivan on this day, the case concerned a full-page ad in The New York Times on March 29, 1960, which alleged that the arrest of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., for perjury in Alabama was part of a campaign to destroy King’s efforts to integrate public facilities and encourage blacks to vote. L. B. Sullivan, the Montgomery city commissioner, filed a libel action against the newspaper and four black ministers who were listed as endorsers of the ad, claiming that the allegations against the Montgomery police defamed him personally. The Court ruled that, without the show of malice, the case would severely cripple the safeguards of freedoms of speech and expression that are guaranteed in the First Amendment and applicable to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Justice William Brennan’s opinion in the case is widely regarded as the most important statement of the meaning of the First Amendment in a democratic society.

See the Original Advertisement: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/documented-rights/exhibit/section4/detail/heed-rising-voices.html

Justice Brennan’s classic opinion, in part: “. . . a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

Read: Anthony Lewis, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment (1991)

Listen to the oral arguments before the Supreme Court: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1963/1963_39

And read: Kermit Hall and Melvin Urofsky, New York Times v. Sullivan: Civil Rights, Libel Law, and the Free Press (2011)

See a timeline for important rulings regarding the First Amendment at the First Amendment Center:
http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/first-amendment-timeline

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