Today, on Jan 6, 1964, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark free speech case.
In law school, you learn that there are two standards to successfully sue someone for defamation: One if you're an ordinary person, and a higher standard if you're a public official.
That reasoning started with this case.
In 1960, The New York Times published an ad by Dr. King's supporters (see pic) criticizing police in Montgomery, Alabama, for mistreating civil rights protesters.
Montgomery's police commissioner, Sullivan, sued the Times, in Alabama, for defamation & won a $500,000 jury verdict.
The Times appealed the verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which reversed Alabama's verdict as violating the First Amendment. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that a public official who sues for defamation must prove, in addition to the normal elements of defamation, that the defamer acted with "actual malice".
Before this decision, Southern states had used defamation laws to pursue nearly $300 million in damages against news organizations, seriously jeopardizing media's coverage of the Civil Rights movement.