The Gist: The New York Times published and ad defending Martin Luther King, Jr. and criticizing civil rights protesters, including public officials from Alabama. Some of the criticisms were inaccurate, yet minor. One public official, L.B. Sullivan, sued the paper for libel. Though Sullivan won his case in state court, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that a news publication could not be sued for libel by officials unless the official was able to establish the paper knew the statement was false before publishing or acted with reckless disregard of its accuracy. The paper was protected by the 1st and 14th amendments.
During this time, southern states used defamation and libel lawsuits against news organizations as a deterrent from publishing matters regarding civil rights. The Supreme Court's 9-0 decision, requiring actual malice to hold a news organization liable for libel or defamation when publishing information about a public official, opened the doors for publications to speak freely about civil rights violations and paved way for progress in the civil rights movement.
Because a publication's malicious intent is hard to prove, this was a huge victory for the constitutional right to speak freely and provided broad protection for freedom of the press. It is considered one of the best Supreme Court decisions regarding the 1st Amendment and the Times considers it "the clearest and most forceful defense of press freedom in American history.