Publication Date



Like all major cases, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which has now reached its fiftieth anniversary, is capable of multiple readings. This is less true of Sullivan than of some other epochal cases, especially those cases that continue to have a powerful political valence. Brown v. Board of Education, in particular, which will mark its sixtieth anniversary this year, continues to provoke fierce debates about its meaning and, in a deeper sense, its ownership. Sullivan is unquestionably one of the most important decisions in First Amendment jurisprudence. It has certainly produced debate. But arguments about Sullivan generally focus on whether the ruling was correct and how it should be applied, not its basic meaning.

One such debate asks whether Sullivan is in any substantial measure a press case-one whose primary importance is the contribution it makes to the ability of the news media to report on public officials and events-or whether it is centrally about public commentary by any individual, regardless of whether that person is a journalist. Another is whether Sullivan should be read entirely as a speech (or press) case without regard to its immediate historical context, or whether it needs to be understood in light of its close connection to the events of the Civil Rights Movement. A third concerns how much Sullivan should be understood as involving speech on matters of public importance in general, as opposed to viewing it as a means of counterbalancing government officials in particular. On the whole, it seems to me, the movement in our understanding of Sullivan-and,indeed, of constitutional rights in general-has been away from contextual or institutional readings, and toward more general, universally applicable, and abstract readings.