• NYT v. Sullivan Unfortunately Lives to Fight Another Day

    October 27, 2023

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    Justice Clarence Thomas said it “comes at a heavy cost, allowing media organizations and interest groups ‘to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity.’” It is New York Times v. Sullivan, America’s defining defamation law and it unfortunately lives to fight another day. Or mess one up.

    Thomas, along with others on the Supreme Court, declined earlier this month to revisit the landmark First Amendment decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, rebuffing a request (the case involved a man falsely accused in the press of being a felon) to take another look at decades-old precedent that created a high bar for public figures to claim defamation in civil suits. Since 1964 the media relied on the case to fend off costly defamation lawsuits brought by public figures. The ruling established the requirement that public figures show “actual malice” by the press before they can succeed in a libel dispute.

    Defamation is untruths commonly referred to as libel if in print. Five standards have to be met when the defamation takes places between the media and a public figure: 1) the defamatory words have been published; 2) The person being defamed was identified by the statements; 3) The remarks had a negative impact on the person’s reputation; 4) The named Defendant wrote the defamatory remarks; 5) The published information is demonstrably false or was published with a reckless disregard for the truth. That means it was published without investigating whether it was accurate.

    New York Times v. Sullivan held the First Amendment protects media even when they publish false statements, as long as they did not act with actual malice. What happened in the case was civil rights leaders had run a full-page fund raising ad in the Times, describing “an unprecedented wave of terror” by the police against peaceful demonstrators in Montgomery, Alabama. Not all the bad things they accused the cops of doing were true, and made the police look worse then they were. So L.B. Sullivan, in charge of the cops in Montgomery, sued the New York Times for libel, claiming they printed something they knew was false to harm his reputation. After losing in a lower court, the Times appealed to the Supreme Court and won.

    The Times argued if a newspaper had to check the accuracy of every criticism of every public official, a free press would be severely limited, and that the 1A required the margin of error to fall on the side of the media in the cases of public officials. In short, mistakes were going to be made even with good intentions by the media. The Court created a new standard for libel of a public figure, “actual malice” defined in short as having the knowledge that something was false or published with “reckless disregard” for truth. Justice William Brennan asserted America’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Free and open debate about the conduct of public officials, the Court reasoned, was more important than occasional, factual errors that might damage officials’ reputations. The standards laid out in Sullivan are why The New York Times has not lost a libel case in America ever since.

    In the recent case the Court just refused to hear (Thomas still wants to review Sullivan but said the current case is not the right vehicle for that), Don Blankenship v. NBC Universal, local media labeled Blankenship a felon, causing him to lose a run for the West Virginia Senate, he maintains. The truth is that Blankenship committed a misdemeanor and was sentenced to one day less than if the case had involved a felony charge. In arguing for Blankenship to a lower court, his attorneys wrote “The actual malice standard poses a clear and present danger to our democracy. New York Times v. Sullivan and its progeny grant the press a license to publish defamatory falsehoods that misinform voters, manipulate elections, intensify polarization, and incite unrest.”

    Attorneys for the media outlets successfully urged the justices not to take up the case, arguing the reporting mistakes were honest ones. “There is good reason why the actual malice standard of New York Times has been embraced for so long and so often,” the media organizations told the justices. “At its essence, the standard protects ‘erroneous statements honestly made.’ While it permits recovery for falsehoods uttered with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth, it provides the ‘breathing space’ required for ‘free debate.’ A free people engaged in self-government deserves no less.”

    Those are the standard Sullivan arguments. It’s just that Justice Thomas does not agree. The Sullivan ruling and ones elaborating on it, he wrote, “were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law” with “no relation to the text, history or structure of the Constitution… the actual-malice standard comes at a heavy cost.” His colleague Justice Neil Gorsuch, in an earlier statement, wrote “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.”

    It may indeed be time for a change. Sullivan was written for a different media world, one dominated by a handful of huge companies like the New York Times which could be held to high standards. They were assumed to be honorable in their work, and if a mistake was made it was most likely an accident. Reporting was just that, news, reported out to the people are accurately as possible. Not so in 2023. The media is a splintered mess, with teenage YouTube influencers reaching vast audiences, challenging the giants of yesterday to a share of the market. These micro-outlets have no fact checking staff, are typically run by people with no journalistic training and maybe not even a high school diploma, and are gloriously, joyfully not trying to be fair and accurate. They traffic instead in gossip and innuendo, smearing together fact and fiction because that attracts eyeballs to their work, their only standard.

    This sort of competition affected the mainstream media, which became more and more partisan and less concerned about the truth if a story brought in readers. One need only look at the embarrassing bits of what passed for journalism as major should-know-better outlets like the Times and the Washington Post reported falsehood after falsehood throughout Russiagate and indeed the entire Trump administration. Given the freedom to make mistakes in the name of the First Amendment, these organs instead took that as license to play at the line of reckless disregard for the truth. How else could a Pulitzer prize be awarded in part of placing Trump fixer Michael Cohen in Prague to meet with Russian spies, or claim a Trump Organization email server was instead a secret communications portal to the Kremlin via Alfa Bank? How could the standard in Sullivan meant to promote robust debate end up protecting a serious column in the Washington Post headlined “Here are 18 reasons Trump Could Be a Russian Asset” without the retort of a defamation suit available?

    Sullivan was meant to protect the underlying value of debate even in the face of product of carelessness and substandard journalistic methods. Its era has passed, wasted by the modern media on confections like YouTube and frauds like Russiagate. The Times of 1964 earned the right to make mistakes in service to a greater good; the Times of 2023 would embarrass its earlier self in how it has exploited such a gift.

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  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...

      1

      “Justice Clarence Thomas said it “comes at a heavy cost…”

      Supreme Irony: Clarence, since when did you worry about the cost of those luxurious vacation trips and your $280,000 RV and your mother’s house and god knows what else?

      10/27/23 9:29 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      2

      “The media is a splintered mess, with teenage (and senior citizen)YouTube influencers reaching vast audiences, challenging the giants of yesterday to a share of the market. These micro-outlets have no fact checking staff, are typically run by people with no journalistic training and maybe not even a high school diploma, and are gloriously, joyfully not trying to be fair and accurate. They traffic instead in gossip and innuendo, smearing together fact and fiction because that attracts eyeballs to their work, their only standard.”

      Epps, oops. The farce is strong with this one.

      10/28/23 9:33 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      3

      If Anita Hill hadn’t been a cranky uptight lesbian Clarence might not have been confirmed. Biden and his ilk took an immediate disliking of her. Thomas should have known Anita would find his crude advances repellant but I guess the nuns who watched over him made him feel like a celebrated rake.

      10/28/23 10:27 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      4

      Virginia and Clarence Thomas married in 1987. In an interview, Ginni’s uncle said of the couple, “I can guarantee you I was surprised when I found out she was going with a black man”, to which her Aunt added, “but he was so nice, we forgot he was black, and he treated her so well all of his other qualities made up for his being black.”

      Black? That will come as a surprise to Clarence.

      10/28/23 10:30 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      5

      Geez, I hope Peter doesnt really think anyone can damage the old fool’s reputation. Trump damages his own reputation when he utters insane comments every friggin day.

      Speaking of old fools on the Supremes who should all be retired, how about we amend an age limit on presidense candidates. If there is justification for minimum age -there isn’t – there sure is hell an old age justification for these two now. At least require a sanity qualification. Mr. Sullivan took it in his own hands to deal with a lunatic with Absolute Power.

      10/30/23 9:26 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      6

      “One need only look at the embarrassing bits of what passed for journalism as major should-know-better outlets like the Times and the Washington Post reported falsehood after falsehood throughout Russiagate and indeed the entire Trump administration.”

      1. These articles had no impact on Trump losing the popular vote in 2020 election by 8 million. Most voters don’t read the lies the Times or Post prints.

      2. As for embarrassing the yellow journalist NYT and Post, well, their reputation was embarrassed by the lies they printed about the Yellowcake journalism.

      3. If you want something to read, go read the American Conservative. It’s shit too, but hilarious too. It doesn’t embarrass itself by remotely claiming it prints the truth.

      10/30/23 11:58 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      7

      How can anyone make the case the Orange Clown can be defamed, given the OC’s Operation Chaos is deliberate and predictable?

      Hamilton: When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, (possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits), despotic in his ordinary demeanor, known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty, when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity, to join in the cry of danger to liberty, to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion, to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day, It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

      11/3/23 11:21 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      8

      Here’s news you can use

      The publisher of Mark Meadows’ book The Chief’s Chief has filed suit against the former White House chief of staff, seeking millions in damages after he reportedly copped to lying in the book about the 2020 election being “rigged” and “stolen.”

      Meadows reportedly met repeatedly with Jack Smith’s team in its investigation into election interference and had admitted the 2020 election was the most secure in U.S. history—contradicting much of what he’d claimed in his book and allegedly breaking his agreement with the publisher.

      So the NYT and Post that print lies regularly should be sued by its subscribers, right?

      11/5/23 7:36 AM | Comment Link

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