Jonathan Peters is a media regulation professor at the University of Georgia, with appointments in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Connection and the School of Law. He is the press freedom correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review. Twitter: @jonathanwpeters. The sights expressed in this commentary will be his own.
(CNN) In March 1960, The New York Times published a paid ad from an organization helping Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., setting off a chain of situations that would change the purpose of the press in the us and help shape our open public discourse for decades.
Under the name “Heed Their Rising Voices,” the ad commenced with these phrases: “As depends upon knows by now, thousands of Southern Negro learners are involved in widespread nonviolent demonstrations in positive affirmation of the right to live in human dignity as guaranteed by america Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
The Deep South was segregated and increasingly under siege by protests against racism, and the full-page ad both solicited financial contributions and accused authorities in Montgomery, Alabama, of abusing protesters and violating the Constitution.
Although the ad didn’t name any local officials, the Montgomery city commissioner who ran the authorities department, L.B. Sullivan, sued THE CHANGING TIMES for libel — declaring the ad harmed his standing because it reproached the authorities and included minor mistakes. The trial in condition court produced a $500,000 jury award for the city commissioner.
THE CHANGING TIMES had struggled to guard itself because Alabama, like the majority of states then, had adopted libel rules favorable to the plaintiff. For example, any statement at issue in a libel action was presumed to come to be fake, and the publisher’s fault was presumed, as well. Complicating issues were the ad’s minimal errors, including the declare that Dr. King have been arrested seven times rather than four.