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.