The New York Times carried a full-page advertisement entitled, Heed Their Rising Voices for the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South. In short The advertisement suggested that public officials in the South were using violent and illegal means to try to stop the civil rights movement. Although the advertisement's claims were somewhat truthful, some minor factual errors were made. Sullivan, the Montgomery Alabama Police Commissioner, claimed these errors damaged his reputation and he won $500,000 in a libel case in Alabama.
The case was appealed to the US Supreme Court, where the decision was unanimously reversed, saying the New York Times was not guilty of reckless disregard for the truth. The Court ruled that the importance of free debate in a democratic society was more important than factual errors that might upset or even damage public officials. To win a libel case, public officials now needed to prove that damaging statements were printed with malicious intent (actual malice). The Supreme Court( mostly Brennan )defined malice as "A reckless disregard for the truth, or advance knowledge of falsity."Since the ruling made it difficult for public officials to sue for libel, questions arose as to who was and who was not a public official. The Supreme Court eventually changed the term to public figure. The Court continues to give the mass media room for honest error. Which is very much needed. Allowing reporters, government officials, and such to have some sort of leeway when giving reportsAlong with this standard Justice Brennan had redirected the burden of proof onto the plaintiff. Originally it was the defendants job to prove to the court of his/her own innocence. A total of six rules were standardized to prove the actual defamation. As listed; the use of defamatory language, to whom the defamatory language was being directed, whether the defamatory material was widely spread, if the article was negligent or reckless, if the article is related to matters of public concern then they must prove it to be false, and last of all would be personal damages whether they be financial or emotional.
Along with these standards the supreme court had extended the ideas of the New York Times Vs Sullivan case to all other cases. However they divided them into sub categories such as; Public Figures, All Purpose Figures, Vortex Public Figures, and other limited public figures.
An All Purpose Public Figure is a person who is very well known and has achieved either famous or infamous status. The Vortex variety are people that get sucked in...