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Freedom Of The Press And The Death Of Ray Jenkins

November 7, 2019

An obituary that carries with it a slice of American history that resonates over the decades.

Ray Jenkins, the city editor of The Alabama Journal, was eating a bologna sandwich at his desk on April 5, 1960, and thumbing through a week-old copy of The New York Times when a full-page ad caught his eye.

Prominent liberals, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Robinson, were appealing for money for a legal-defense fund for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was facing a trial in Alabama on perjury charges — a good local angle for The Journal.

The ad, titled “Heed Their Rising Voices,” castigated Alabama officials for what it called “an unprecedented wave of terror” against leaders of the civil rights movement.

Within minutes, Mr. Jenkins tapped out 13 paragraphs about the ad; his article appeared in the paper that afternoon.

Apparently, no one else had noticed the ad until then — The Times sold 394 papers a day in Alabama in 1960. And so Alabama officials were startled and enraged after reading Mr. Jenkins’s report, which pointed out that the ad contained some factual errors.

They filed a libel suit against The Times, which ended four years later in a landmark ruling by the United States Supreme Court in the paper’s favor. The case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, made it harder for public officials to sue for defamation and remains a bedrock legal principle upholding freedom of the press.

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