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Dr. King's impact on freedom of speech

Howard Manly | 1/16/2013, 7:04 a.m.

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The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, and Bayard Rustin, leaders in the racial bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., leave the Montgomery County Courthouse on Feb. 24, 1956. The civil rights leaders were arraigned along with 87 other black activists. Thousands of supporters walked in protest against the mass indictments and arrests.

The “New York Times v. Sullivan” case redefined libel and enabled the press to cover the Civil Rights Movement without fear of economic reprisal 

   

“... 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 …”

 —  U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan

Before Brennan’s opinion, delivered on March 9, 1964 and written for the unanimous court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, white Southerners hell-bent on preserving their “cultural traditions” were having a field day with the New York Times.   

One of those Southerners, L.B. Sullivan, the Montgomery, Ala. commissioner in charge of police, had already won a $500,000 libel verdict in an Alabama lower court. That decision was affirmed in 1961 by the Alabama Supreme Court which assessed another $500,000 in penalties. Standing in line were several other claims of disgruntled Southern officials, including a $500,000 suit by Montgomery Mayor Earl James and $1 million suit filed by Alabama Gov.  John Patterson.

The case would then go to the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 6, 1964 and become one of the seminal cases on freedom of the press in the nation’s history, establishing new standards for proving defamation. A public official, Brennan wrote, cannot recover “damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’ — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

But at the time, none of that mattered to four black preachers, many of whom were lost in the shadow of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery and S.S. Seay  Jr. All four were also named in the suit against the New York Times. For these members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,  freedom of the press was not a theoretical issue but rather a tangible — and mounting  —  debt that Alabama courts were forcing them to pay.

As it was, Taylor Branch reported in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” the automobiles of Shuttlesworth, Abernathy and Lowery had been sold at a state-ordered auction. Some of the Seay’s real estate was attached for quick sale. A lien had been fixed on the land Abernathy had inherited from his father, and lawyers were moving to discover other property that could be seized. Abernathy later disclosed that he stood to lose as much as $200,000.

And that was the point of all the legal challenges — to make their commitment to the Civil Rights Movement and fight against segregation so unbearable that they would pack up, shut up and stop bringing in those “outside agitators.”

From its beginning, Branch wrote, the Sullivan case “confronted the American court system with a delicate political dilemma ... Eventually, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court avoided the racial content of the facts by inventing a new standard.”