Adding Flesh to Sullivan’s Bones: The Legacy of St. Amant v. Thompson




Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communication

Document Type



The 1962 Democratic primary for the United States Senate seat from Louisiana was not much of a contest, with incumbent Russell B. Long handily defeating his opponent, Phil A. St. Amant. But the defamation case that stemmed from that campaign has had a lasting impact on defamation law in the United States. While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in St. Amant v. Thompson often now gets lost in the myriad decisions labelled as “Sullivan’s progeny,” the ruling established standards for the application of the “actual malice” test established in New York Times v. Sullivan. The confusion over these standards is shown by the shifting results in the St. Amant case as it progressed through the trial and appellate courts, and in the debate amongst the justices of the Supreme Court. This dissertation examines the law of defamation prior to the trial in Deputy Sherriff Herman Thompson’s libel case against St. Amant, including its origins in English common law, the development of the principles of the First Amendment, and the influence of Louisiana’s unique history on defamation law in the state. It then examines the circumstances of the 1962 Senate campaign, and the televised statement that led to the lawsuit. It then examines the court proceedings in the trial and appellate courts in detail, with a particular emphasis on the behind-the-scenes deliberations of the U.S. Supreme Court justices. Finally, the dissertation examines the lasting legacy of the St. Amant v. Thompson decision, including how it has been cited and used in subsequent cases, both nationally and in Louisiana. It concludes with an analysis of the legacy of the case and its meaning for libel law today and in the future. The St. Amant case came in the midst of a redefinition of the meaning of the First Amendment, expressed in a series of U.S. Supreme Court precedents from the 1960s thorough the 1980s. Until this work, it has been an underappreciated part of this history. This dissertation is an attempt to examine the case and place it in its proper role in the legacy of First Amendment jurisprudence.



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Committee Chair

Day, Louis



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