RALEIGH — Most journalists have at least a cursory knowledge of one of the landmark press cases of the 20th century, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
The ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court established that public figures can prove libel or defamation only with a finding that those who wrote about them knew the information was false or showed reckless disregard for the truth.
Sometimes lost in the case’s explanation is how it proved just as important to the Civil Rights Movement as to freedom of the press.
The reason is that the case’s origins go back to trumped-up charges of tax-filing perjury brought against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In response, actor Harry Belafonte and others took out an ad in The New York Times soliciting money for King’s legal defense. The ad described the sit-in movement in the South and the effort to suppress it.
Montgomery Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan and Alabama Gov. John Patterson sued the newspaper and four civil-rights leaders who signed the ad.
The lawsuit noted that the ad claimed King had been arrested seven times, when he had been arrested four times. It cited three other trivial differences between the ad claims and what had occurred during Alabama protests.
An Alabama jury ruled that the statements constituted defamation and libel and ordered all the defendants to pay $500,000. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the ruling.
Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it. Pending in the courts at the time were $300 million in similar claims against newspapers by Southern political leaders.
The lawsuits were being used to suppress coverage of the Civil Rights Movement.
Most Americans are aware of the violence used against protesters in places like Birmingham. Sixty years later, many of us have forgotten or never learned the other means used to attack those who challenged segregation.
Other than lawsuits, student protest leaders were expelled from state-supported schools, laws were passed requiring civil rights groups to publish membership lists, and segregationists published lists of protesters in local newspapers in hopes of getting them fired from their jobs.
That history was recently brought to mind by the decision of the conservative Civitas Institute to publish photos and create a database – including names, addresses and employers – of those arrested as a part of the so-called Moral Monday protests being held at the N.C. Legislative Building.
In all, there are 382 arrestees.
The information is public, and Sullivan and other case law seem to support Civitas’ right to publish it.
That doesn’t mean Civitas and its leader, Francis De Luca, haven’t placed themselves onto a suspect historical parallel.
Years ago, when I worked in Goldsboro, the then-police chief wanted to begin dog patrols in housing projects. Former City Manager Richard Slozak told me at the time, “Over my dead body will there be police officers walking through housing projects with tethered German Shepherds.”
It didn’t happen.
Slozak knew his history.
Others apparently do not.
Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.