Justice Thomas states will to reevaluate landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case

28 Feb

In a recent decision by the Supreme Court to not take up a state lawsuit involving defamation, libel, and the standard of malice Supreme Court Justice brought up reevaluating the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion to not take up Katherine McKee’s defamation lawsuit, stated that the New York Times v. Sullivan case which decided that public figures have a higher burden to prove libel was wrongly decided.

            “New York Times and the Court’s decisions extending it were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law,” Thomas’s concurring opinion stated. “If the Constitution does not require public figures to satisfy an actual-malice standard in state-law defamation suits, then neither should we.”

For some background and history on the issue that caused the New York Times v. Sullivan case was that an Alabama police commissioner in the 1960’s filed a lawsuit stating that he’d been a victim of libel through an ad that was placed in the New York Times. The ad was about a civil rights incident that had occurred early in the year in Montgomery, Alabama. He sued the New York Times accusing them of libel and defamation and won in state courts and it eventually reached the Supreme Court where they handed down their decision.

The ruling that the Supreme Court handed down was that in order for the court to support a claim of libel the First Amendment requires a public official to prove actual malice. Actual malice means that the person suing for libel has to prove that the accused published the libel knowing that the statement was false or that the accused acted with a complete disregard for the truth of the matter. This ruling made in 1964 was the first time the courts added protections for political speech against public officials since the First Amendment was ratified. A few years after this landmark ruling the courts added a few more protections for speech against public officials.

Lastly in Justice Thomas’ opinion he states that, “We did not begin meddling in this area until 1964, nearly 175 years after the First Amendment was ratified. The States are perfectly capable of striking an acceptable balance between encouraging robust public discourse and providing a meaningful remedy for reputational harm. We should reconsider our jurisprudence in this area.” No other Justices concurred with Thomas’s opinion on this matter of reevaluating the New York Times v. Sullivan case.

One big reason that Justice Thomas bringing up that the Supreme Court should reevaluate the New York Times libel case is worrying is because of the current state of our political discourse in this country. There are a lot of things being thrown around by public officials of all parties and ideologies attacking speech and reducing the protections afforded to political speech is a dangerous precedent to set.

One example that we all should be familiar is with how regularly President Donald Trump’s uses the term “Fake News”. This is where he does not like something some journalist or news outlet publishes or says and decides to call it fake regardless of the facts behind their reporting. If we reduced protections for journalists in their coverage of political figures public officials like President Trump could start suing papers and outlets he doesn’t like without regard to the facts.

We should all be encouraged that no other Justices concurred with Justice Thomas’ opinion and should reaffirm as much as possible that the First Amendment “was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.”

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Blue Captcha Image