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Log In / Register | Dec 15, 2017

The Ad That Changed The World: 50 Years of Sullivan

Not many advertisements are in the permanent collection of the National Archives.

January 6 marks the 50th anniversary of oral arguments in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

The dispute began with a newspaper advertisement,"Heed Their Rising Voices," which detailed the actions taken by law enforcement in Alabama to suppress the civil rights movement. The Montgomery public safety commissioner (though not named in the ad) sued for defamation and won a verdict of half a million dollars--the largest such verdict in the history of Alabama.

Although truth had been an established defense, the newspaper ad contained several minor inaccuracies (such as the number of times M.L. King had been arrested and the position of the police during a campus demonstration).

In reversing the Alabama court, the U.S. Supreme Court was unanimous.

While Sullivan is known for the principle that a public figure must show "actual malice" on the part of the speaker in order to prevail on a defamation claim, Sullivan is much more than that.

Times v. Sullivan marked the beginning of modern defamation law, and its application makes it the most significant freedom of speech case since the Zenger trial of 1735.

None of the Justices knew it, but they were at the dawn of the digital age. And while the unanimous Sullivan decision was to be followed by some close 5-4 votes on subsequent free speech cases, it is the basic principle set forth in Sullivan-- "debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open"-- which today we accept as a given.

Coupled with the 1996 passage of the Communications Decency Act section 230, the Sullivan case is why you can read Blue MauMau; it is why the United States has the widest degree of free speech in the history of the world.

For several years, the influence of the United States on digital communication has led to a de facto export of American free-speech values. That has never sat well with repressive regimes, nor even with some of our Anglo common-law cousins.

In the wake of the disclosures by Edward Snowden, even democratic governments are seeking to balkanize the digital world. That would be a mistake.

Times v. Sullivan has properly taken its place in the pantheon of human freedoms: not simply American freedoms, but those belonging to all humanity.

It started with a newspaper advertisement appropriately titled "Heed Their Rising Voices."

Half a century later, we are reminded that free speech is not a given. It is a value won by hard work and maintained by vigilance. And to remind us of that fact, a newspaper advertisement is in our National Archives.

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