In this 1964 case the Supreme Court set forth the "actual malice" standard, holding that actual malice is required for a public figure to prevail in a libel suit. Actual malice means the publisher "knew that the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity."
The necessity for this new more stringent standard is seen by examining the situation that existed at the time regarding the civil rights movement. At the time of the decision, there were over $300 million worth of libel suits outstanding against news organizations in the South for how they were reporting on civil rights protests. This was having a tremendous chilling effect on reporting.
The plaintff Sulllivan was the Police Commissioner for Montgomery, Alabama. He compained of an ad in the NY Times whivh contained some inaccuracies. Evne though Sulivan was not even mentioned in the ad, he won a $500,000 judgment in an Alabama court. The Times had not printed a retraction, which would have insulated it from punitive damages under Alabama law, because it didn't see how Sullivan was at all affected by the ad.
It should be noted that the facts of the case made it a good one for the news organization side of the case, as the case involved criticism of a public official for his official conduct. Further, the fact that the statements complained of were in an ad rather than in a news story, surely reduces the duty of the Times to check the accuracy of those facts before publication.
Three justices concurred in the result, but would go farther than the majority opinion did. Their position was that "the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution afford to the citizen and to the press an absolute, unconditional privilege to criticize official conduct despite the harm which may flow from excesses and abuses." It was mentioned that criticism of the *private* conduct of a public figure would not enjoy this blanket protection.
It seems that there perhaps should be a three-tiered or even four-tiered approach to this issue, rather than the two-tiered one set up by the majority opinion (i.e., either the plaintff is a public figure or he isn't). The court doesn't define what is meant by a "public figure". I have to agree with the concurring justices, hwoever, that the ability to criticize one's government deserves absolute protection, while lesser protections should be in place for criticism of private conduct.