Supreme Court Declines to Revisit Press-Freedom Case

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jan Wolfe headlined “Supreme Court Declines to Revisit Landmark Press-Freedom Case”:

The Supreme Court again declined to revisit New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark 1964 case that set a high bar for suing news organizations for defamation, drawing a dissent from Justice Clarence Thomas.

The court turned away an appeal by Coral Ridge Ministries Media, a Florida-based evangelical organization that unsuccessfully sued the Southern Poverty Law Center for calling it a “hate group.”

Writing on his own, Justice Thomas reiterated his view that the “actual malice” standard established by Sullivan has “allowed media organizations and interest groups to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity.”

Sullivan held that public figures suing for defamation must clearly and convincingly prove “actual malice”—in other words, that the person or media outlet being sued either knew they were publishing falsehoods or acted with a reckless disregard for the truth.

The Sullivan case involved a 1960 newspaper advertisement criticizing the treatment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil-rights activists by local officials in Montgomery, Ala. L.B. Sullivan, a Montgomery city commissioner, alleged that the advertisement libeled him because it misstated certain facts, such as claiming that Black students protesting at the state Capitol sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” when in fact they sang the national anthem. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld a $500,000 damage award.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ruling and laid out the actual malice standard as a guidepost for lower courts considering defamation claims made by public figures.

The First Amendment reflected a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” Justice William Brennan wrote for the court in 1964.

The outcome in the Coral Ridge case wasn’t surprising, because last year the Supreme Court declined to hear a different case that could also have been a vehicle for overturning Times v. Sullivan.

In that case, involving an Albanian man who said a book falsely linked him to arms dealers, Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Justice Thomas in saying that Times v. Sullivan needs to be reassessed.

Justice Gorsuch didn’t join Justice Thomas’s dissent in the Coral Ridge case, however.

It is possible Justice Gorsuch remains interested in revisiting Sullivan but is waiting for a case with different facts, said Gautam Hans, a professor of media law at Vanderbilt Law School.

“It doesn’t seem to me that he would lose interest in this topic, but without a statement from him it’s hard to say,” Mr. Hans said of Justice Gorsuch.

Critics of Times v. Sullivan say its media-friendly “actual malice” framework provides too much license for error, especially in an age where misinformation flows freely on the internet. Defenders of the standard say it has been instrumental in safeguarding free speech.

“What started in 1964 with a decision to tolerate the occasional falsehood to ensure robust reporting by a comparative handful of print and broadcast outlets has evolved into an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods by means and on a scale previously unimaginable,” Justice Gorsuch wrote last year.

Four justices are needed to hear a case. A majority of the nine-member court is required to decide a case.

Former President Donald Trump has said U.S. libel law should be changed to make it easier for public figures to sue for defamation.

Overturning Times v. Sullivan would trigger a flood of lawsuits not just against liberals but also conservative news outlets, Mr. Hans said.

“Any modification is going to apply to everyone,” he added.

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