Freedom Of The Press: How Far Can They Go?

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Commissioner Sullivan was not the only one to take offense at the somewhat distorted account of events in the city that had once been the capital of the Confederacy. In an editorial published a few days later in the Montgomery Advertiser, Grover Hall, the newspaper’s editor, called the ad “lies, lies, lies—and possibly willful ones.” He demanded the Times dissociate itself from such “crude slanders,” warning that “the Republic paid a dear price once for the hysteria and mendacity of abolitionist agitators.” Bettye Frink, Alabama’s secretary of state, also joined the fray; she said the signers of the ad “should have warrants served on them.”

Sullivan asked for a public retraction. It was denied: “We are somewhat puzzled as to how you think the statements in any way reflect on you,” wrote a Times official. On April 19 Sullivan filed a five-hundred-thousand-dollar defamation suit against the newspaper. Although Sullivan claimed no actual financial loss as a result of the alleged libel, he said his reputation had been damaged by the imputation that, in his capacity as supervisor of the police department, he had acted in an unlawful manner.

 

Within a week of Sullivan’s action against the Times, similar suits were filed by Montgomery’s two other commissioners, the mayor of the city, and the governor of the state, John Patterson. Each asked for five hundred thousand dollars in damages, except Patterson, who, in keeping with his higher office, sought a million.

 

The reaction was, of course, out of proportion to the offense. This was not just a dispute about a few relatively trivial errors; after all, the gist of the advertisement, that civil rights demonstrators had encountered considerable violence on the part of Southern law enforcement officials, was undeniably true. Nor was it simply an attempt to seek redress for damaged reputations; if anything, Sullivan’s stature in the community had been enhanced by the ad. Rather, the Alabama libel suits represented a conscious effort to intimidate the Northern press. The recent lunch-counter sit-ins had attracted scores of reporters to the Deep South, and the news they sent home did not tend to show that part of the country in the most favorable light. Just the week before Sullivan filed his suit, the Times’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Harrison Salisbury, was in Alabama working on a series of articles about the racial conflict. His first piece appeared under the headline FEAR AND HATRED GRIP BIRMINGHAM. Salisbury’s story provoked an equally perfervid reaction in that city. The three city commissioners, including Sullivan’s counterpart, “Bull” Connor, each filed five-hundred-thousand-dollar libel actions against the Times. And in September of that year Salisbury was indicted by a grand jury on forty-two counts of criminal libel, for which he faced a total of twenty-one years in jail.

In all, the Times faced more than six million dollars in libel judgments in Alabama—far more than it earned in profits in any given year. It was forced to keep its reporters out of the state for months in order to avoid having anyone in Alabama upon whom legal papers could be served. And perhaps most alarming, a number of prominent attorneys in Montgomery and Birmingham refused to handle the cases. “In all the years I have practiced law,” Louis Loeb, the Times’s chief counsel later told Harrison Salisbury, “nothing had ever arisen that was more worrisome Nothing scared me more than this litigation.”

Loeb had good reason to be concerned. By the time the Sullivan case came to trial in November 1960, all semblance of fairness had been discarded. Montgomery was gearing up to celebrate the centennial of the Confederacy. The presiding judge, Walter B. Jones, a staunch segregationist, refused to allow blacks and whites to sit together in his courtroom. “The Fourteenth Amendment has no standing whatever in this court,” he remarked during one of the related Times cases. “It is a pariah and an outcast.”

The trial lasted three days. M. Roland Nachman, the plaintiff’s lawyer—he also happened to be chief counsel to the Montgomery Advertiser—put six local businessmen on the stand to testify that they assumed the Times ad referred to Sullivan, even though he wasn’t mentioned by name, and that if the allegations were true, they would have been damaging to his reputation. T. Eric Embry, a Birmingham attorney who acted as local counsel for the Times, sought to undermine the commissioner’s own testimony. He argued that since a number of the allegations concerned matters clearly not under police control—the expulsion of the students, for example, or the perjury indictment of Dr. King—they could not possibly have referred to Sullivan. Three Times officials also took the stand, testifying that the paper had accepted the ad in good faith and had no reason to believe it untrue.