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New York Times v Sullivan

How a red-neck Alabama sheriff made hard-hitting journalism possible

Once upon a time, actually covering the news often landed you in court. During the Civil Rights movement Southern government officials had a clever way to control the press. They’d sue them. If the New York Times covered how police set dogs on protesters, government officials would sue the New York Times claiming libel. When a network newscast showed video of police using fire hoses on Civil Rights marchers, local government officials filed libel suits.


While these nuisance law suits may not slow down big news agencies like NYT, the threat of lawsuits could and did influence how or whether news organizations would cover controversial issues. The threat of a lawsuit acted as a chilling effect for some organizations to cover the news. Then New York Times v Sullivan came along.

It started with an advertisement in support of Martin Luther King

In the 1960s Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights advocated for voting rights, the right to ride a bus or go to a restaurant or bathroom without being segregated. Many times MLK got arrested for fighting for these rights. While chilling in a jail cell, supporters created and bought ad space in the New York Times trying to raise money for MLK’s legal fund.

The Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South shared stories in the ad describing incidents where police took action against peaceful protestors. You can read the entire advertisement March 29, 1960 ad here. Here’s one of the stories.

“In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” on the State Capitol steps, their leaders were expelled from school, and truck-loads 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 pad-locked in an attempt to starve them into submission.”

The ad did have some factual errors.

  • In one story, the ad said police set up a “ring” around campus. They didn’t.
  • In one case, the protestors sang the National Anthem, not “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”
  • Police did not padlock a dining hall, but they did turn away students who didn’t show their meal cards

The Sullivan Suit

L.B. Sullivan, the Police Commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, and several others filed lawsuits against the New York Times.

L.B. Sullivan, Police Commissioner, Montgomery, Alabama

Sullivan sued the NYT for $500,000 (that’s $4.9 million in today’s dollars) claiming false and defamatory statements.

Interesting facts

  • Sullivan’s name isn’t in the ad, but he argued the police actions described in the ad reflected badly on his reputation.
  • Only 35 copies of the “offending issue” circulated in his county

The Alabama trial court ruled in favor of Sullivan. The case went to the Alabama Supreme Court. The upheld the defamation award.

Then, the case landed in the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). They ruled against Sullivan.

SCOTUS created two tests that make New York Times v Sullivan a landmark case: defining public officials and establishing “actual malice.”

A State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves “actual malice” — that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.

Let’s say every time the Ellensburg Record publishes an unflattering story about the Kittitas County Commissioners, the commissioners sue. How likely is the newspaper going to print stories about misspent dollars, embezzled money, or other shenanigan’s the commissioners are up to if they know they’ll be sued? That’s called the “chilling effect.” The threat of numerous lawsuits might stop or slow down the number of county commissioner stories the newspaper prints. In the meantime, the commissioners commit their illegal shenanigans without the public knowing.

New York Times v Sullivan gives journalists, like the Ellensburg Record, a chance to share information without a HUGE fear of legal retribution because they got a few minor facts wrong. NYT v Sullivan gives journalists room to cover and uncover what’s going on in government. SCOTUS said public officials must be scrutinized in order for the government to be accountable.

So, what does that mean? President Trump often threatened to sue the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN or whatever news organization he didn’t like that week. He could say he could sue, and he could. The truth is he’d have to prove the news organization published the information “with malice.” How do you prove that? How do you prove a reporter didn’t check sources or showed reckless disregard for the truth?

Now, that doesn’t mean that the press can print anything they want. Let’s say someone walks into the Ellensburg Record newsroom and tells a reporter the commissioners stole money and plan to use it for a vacation in Cancun. If the newspaper printed that story without making an effort to verify the information, they would be showing a reckless disregard for the truth. They would be printing the info with “actual malice.”

If they interview five people who all say the commissioners are embezzling and write the story, they made a good faith effort to confirm facts before going to print. SCOTUS says if what they print, even if it’s false, was printed without “actual malice” the public official has no libel case.

Public official vs private citizen

So, who are public officials? Well, the folks who get elected to office. So, someone like Gov. Jay Inslee is a public official. But you don’t have to be elected to be considered a public official. When Heidi Behrends Cerniwey took the job of Ellensburg City Manager, she became a public official. So is CWU’s president Jim Wohlpart.

Basically, anyone who controls a budget or supervises government employees. So, a school bus driver wouldn’t be a public official, but the person who hires and fires drivers and decides what equipment to buy for the bus garage is a public official.

But it’s not always clear cut. As the advisor to Central News Watch I decide who gets paid and who doesn’t. Does that make me a public official? The answer is it depends on the nature of the story.

  • When the story is about a Civil Service Commissioner who spent more time at the gaming tables than at the convention she’s out of town to attend, she’s a public official.
  • The county coroner is a public official. But when another county hires her to do an autopsy, she’s no longer a public official.
  • How about a story about the fire chief’s personal finance problems versus the city auditor with personal finance problems? In this case, the fire chief is a private citizen, but the city auditor is a public official. (Finance problems don’t directly impact the fire chief’s work versus the guy who’s supposed to keep track of the city’s money has trouble keeping track of his own.)

A New Twist: Public Figures

Since NYT v Sullivan, other cases have created another class of people… the public figure. SCOTUS defines public figures as people who “…occupy positions of such pervasive power and influence that they are deemed public figures for all purposes.”

But is it power or fame that determines if you are a public figure? I’d say Harry Styles, wh has two songs in the Top Ten this week, and Jennifer Lawrence, one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, are both public figures.

But what about Doug McMillon? Who is Doug? He’s the CEO of Walmart who controls the lives of over 2 million employees. What about the owner of Amazon and The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos? Is he a public figure?

Let’s say you’re Alec Baldwin and you’re pissed about the cover and headline of this week’s National Enquirer. Can you sue the National Enquirer? Sure. Will you win? Probably not. Public Figures have to show the National Enquirer showed reckless disregard and published the story without malice. Once again, how do you prove that. That’s why celebrities generally don’t file libel lawsuits. They may bring attention to the libel, but they won’t win the case.

Private Person

But what happens if the Ellensburg Record prints untruths about you or me? Well, they’d better get a lawyer. The “actual malice” test doesn’t apply to private citizens. If the newspaper prints that I spent 6 years in prison before coming to Central to teach, I’m going to get rich quick! I don’t have to show malice. I don’t have to show reckless disregard. All I have to do is prove I didn’t do time. BTW – I didn’t!

So, what does New York Times v Sullivan ultimately mean?

If you’re a public official or a public figure, you must prove actual malice if you want to win a libel suit. If you’re a private citizen, then all you have to prove is the information is false.

Where we get into gray ares is determining who is and who isn’t a public official. When does a government employee become a public official? And who is and is not a public figure?

New York Times v Sullivan gives journalists their Freedom of the Press rights to act as watch guards of the government, without the fear of being sued into bankruptcy.

The Gift of Listening

I believe there’s a big difference between hearing someone and actively listening to that person. You can physically “hear” sounds, but you have to actually pay attention and work to actively listening.

I’m not alone in thinking this. You can count me among the wise and wonderful who believe in the art of listening.

Continue reading The Gift of Listening

Monroe’s Motivated Sequence Part 2: A tried and true method of persuasion

If you followed instructions and read Monroe’s Motivated Sequence Part 1: A tried and true method of persuasion, then you should recognize the mysterious Dr. Monroe. (Seriously, this is the only picture I can find of Monroe on-line!)

Monroe is the genius behind Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, used in business and professional communication to persuade audiences. While there’s no 100% guarantee, I think you can see how following this sequence can increase your chances of persuading others. While in the future you may or may not follow MMS step-by-step, you should identify persuasive elements or concepts you can use in your future speeches, pitches and presentations. (Note: You MUST follow the sequence for your persuasive speech. Failure to do so will cost you BIG points!)

BTW – I had a student who challenged me about Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. He said Winston Churchill did have to follow MMS to influence his English countrymen during World War II. Frankly, I didn’t know if Churchill used MMS or not but I took the student’s statement as a challenge. I analyzed a couple of Churchill’s speeches including his Iron Curtain speech.

While it didn’t follow MMS in lock step, I could identify the basic MMS structure, the use of pathos and logos examples, along with other MMS elements in Churchill’s words. So there, smarty pants student! (I thought about using a more descriptive way of describe my smarty pants student, but this is a PG rated blog!)

Continue reading Monroe’s Motivated Sequence Part 2: A tried and true method of persuasion

Monroe’s Motivated Sequence (Part 1): A tried & true method of persuasion

At Purdue Polytechnic Institute an engineering professor wanted his students to become better presenters. . He wanted them to get better at pitching the project. He wanted his students to have the tools to persuade future clients to buy into their proposed projects. So, the engineering professor wandered over to the Communications Department and knocked on the door of Dr. Alan H. Monroe.

Monroe took on the challenge and developed Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. It’s basically a template where you plug in the right information and you end up designing a persuasive speech or argument.

The thing is, this happened back in the 1930s. Yet today at Purdue, all students who take freshman communication classes learn Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. Today, Purdue professors expect seniors to use MMS when presenting their senior projects.

Dr. Alan Monroe

“Students are expected to use Monroe’s Motivated Sequence heavily for their final project according to new curriculum in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute.”

Yes, there are other persuasive techniques but I like how Monroe maps out his persuasive method. Also, a majority of the students in COM 345 come from electrical, engineering and safety related majors. I thought if it works for Purdue engineers, it’s good enough for CWU’s engineers!

A man of mystery

Take a look at a speech textbook. You’ll probably find Monroe’s name in there somewhere. Even though he died in 1975 he’s still listed as one of the authors of Principles of Public Speaking textbook. Purdue offers scholarships in his name. Mention Monroe’s Motivated Sequence to anyone who teaches rhetoric and they’ll immediately know what you’re talking about.

Continue reading Monroe’s Motivated Sequence (Part 1): A tried & true method of persuasion

Let me introduce you to a form of mass media. It’s called radio

by Terri Reddout

I remember listening for my favorite songs on KENE Radio. I even won a contest for the best joke of the day. (I remember the joke. I have no idea how I won.)

Your generation, Millennials and Gen Z, spend about 18 hours a week listening to audio. Like me, your first choice is radio, but you also use audio sources like Spotify and Pandora, in addition to podcasts. Bottom line, in my day you I listened to radio on a radio. In your time “radio” doesn’t have to come from a radio. You can listen to audio on you iPod, your computer or your smart phone. You don’t get to hear the static as you tune a station in for the evening.

They say radio is dying. In my mind, radio is like a cat… it has nine lives. Everyone thinks it’s going to die, but then radio reinvents itself over and over and over again.

A little radio history

There was a day and time where people would actually gather around a radio set and “watch” radio. When radios first moved into our homes they were a bit clunkier. As you can see in this picture, the radio was slightly smaller than today’s big screen TVs.

Whenever your program came on, you ran into the living room, sat down in front of the radio and watched it as you listened to the drama of Little Orphan Annie, the comedy of the Jack Benny Show or the soap opera The Guiding Light.

Does music impact society? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind…

Written by Terri Reddout

Musician Frank Zappa’s quote rings true. Music does reflect what’s going on in society.

In fact, artists like Terrace Martin, LL Cool J, YG have released new music in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Helen Reddy’s I am Woman served as an anthem for the woman’s movement back in the 70s. Even today, people still use the phrase I am woman, hear me roar.

I grew up listening to Vietnam War protest songs, which leads me to a story about my early teaching career.

Books with Impact

Question: What impact did the Gutenberg press have on society?
Answer: A lot. A whole bunch of a lot.

When Gutenberg invented the press in the mid-1400s, it made information accessible to the masses. The technology made sharing uncensored ideas with your neighbors, the village down the road, or even the world, possible.

Before the Gutenberg press, only the rich could afford books and manuscripts. In fact, books were so rare that most churches did NOT have a copy of the Bible under its roof.

According to a web article posted by the University of Texas, it’s estimated you could only find around 30,000 books in all of Europe before the Gutenberg press. Fifty years later, 10 to 12 million books circulated throughout Europe.

Yeah, I’d say the Gutenberg press had an impact.

Continue reading Books with Impact

What are laws?

Before we start studying communication law, we need to understand how the legal system works. Let’s start by defining law.

This is my son, Casey. He studied law at the Knight School of Law at the University of Oregon. He passed the Washington Bar Exam and now practices family law at a big family law firm that stretches from Washington through Oregon. In 2018-2019, Super Lawyers named him a Washington Rising Star and he has a Avvo.com “Superb” rating.

Casey E.R. Sanders
Family Lawyer
McKinley Irvin Family Law
Vancouver, Washington
“Best lawyer ever” says his mom.

Okay, enough bragging about my son. I mention him because he is someone who studied and practices law. But the legal system also “makes” laws.

Continue reading What are laws?

You may be ordering a new radio from Amazon. Really!

by Terri Reddout

Sure, we all know about digital radio. That’s what XM and Sirius satellite radio is all about. That ability to get satellite radio is built into almost every new car today.

But there’s another type of digital radio signal out there that won’t cost you a cent. Although, you’re going to have to buy a new radio to get it.

In 2018, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) approved a digital radio signal platform that all U.S. radio stations will convert to within the next few years. It’s called HD Radio. The digital signal will be broadcast alongside the current analog signal on the same frequency.

This digital signal means no more scratchy, static-y signals on AM stations. It will have text features so, if you want to know the name of the song the answer will be right in front you.

HD Radio makes it possible for stations to run side channels like Pride Radio, ESPN Deportes and Mother Trucker Radio.

But, in order to get HD radio to work, you may have to buy a HD radio to pick up the signal. That’s good news for radio manufacturers. It’s estimated 2.5 billion radio receivers will have to be replaced.

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Movies with Impact

By Terri Reddout
Which movies had an impact on our culture or society?

By impact, I mean, did the movie change how we look at the world?  Did it change the way we speak?  Did it change the way we see how others view the world?

So, which movies had an impact on our culture and society?  It depends on who you ask.

  • Ask a film buff and they might say Citizen Kane or Casablanca
  • Ask a war veteran and you might get answers as diverse as Bridge over the River Kwai, Born on the 4th of July, Coming Home, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now or Finding Private Ryan.
  • Ask a woman and you might get Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich or Thelma & Louise.
  • Ask a kid (or a grown-up kid) and they might say anything with Avengers in the title.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

In my day, a movie with impact had to be Star Wars. The story, the characters, the computer generated images took us to a new place and time.

When Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defensive Initiative, a network of missiles to protect the U.S. from nuclear attack from Russia, the White House dubbed it “Star Wars.”  (BTW- In the wake of what’s happening in North Korea, it’s weird to think Russia as our greatest threat of nuclear attack.) Continue reading Movies with Impact