New York Times v. Sullivan
New York Times Company v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) is a landmark case which arose from a chief of police suing the New York Times for libel in reporting on civil rights protests. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a public official seeking libel damages for a matter relating to his official conduct must prove that the false statement about him had been made with actual malice that is, with conscious knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was or not. The Court held that, otherwise, the press or other critics would be restrained from speaking or writing for fear they could not readily demonstrate that what they had said was true.
During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the "Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South" published a paid advertisement in the New York Times, describing how Chief of Police Sullivan had suppressed a civil rights demonstration in Montgomery. Sullivan sued for libel. While US law has held that true statements cannot be libelous, Sullivan argued that the advertisement contained a small error - saying that the protesters sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" when in fact they sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" - and therefore could be libelous.
The court unanimously ruled in favor of the New York Times. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion of the court, saying that, lest the press be restrained, even false statements must be protected by the First Amendment as long as they are not made with actual malice that is, with conscious knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was or not.
This was the first Supreme Court case to squarely address freedom of speech, so it was a groundbreaking opinion. For instance, this was the first time the Supreme Court officially said that the Sedition Act of 1798 was unconstitutional.
A showing of actual malice requires proof that the defendant knew that his statement was false or spoke with reckless disregard for whether it was false or not.
Tah v. Global Witness
In March 2021 D.C. Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman wrote in a dissent that he was “prompted to urge the overruling of New York Times v. Sullivan,” and that "Two of the three most influential papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, are virtually Democratic Party broadsheets." In one footnote, Judge Silberman likened the precedent on libel to the Brezhnev Doctrine, named after the Soviet party boss who proclaimed as Judge Silberman paraphrased it, “once a country has turned communist, it can never be allowed to go back.” Wrote Judge Silberman: “Apparently, maintaining a veneer of infallibility is more important than correcting fundamental missteps.”
Judge Silberman wrote that the Sullivan precedent has allowed the press “to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity.” The “increased power of the press,” he warned, “is so dangerous today because we are very close to one-party control of these institutions” and poses a threat to a "viable democracy." He singled out the Washington Post, the New York Times, and National Public Radio.
The judge went on to accuse Silicon Valley and social media giants of helping perpetuate the liberal bias that is apparently so widespread in the news. Meanwhile, new conservative news networks that have launched in recent years have faced 'bans' or 'censorship' on social media, Silberman argued.
"After observing my colleagues' efforts to stretch the actual malice rule like a rubber band, I am prompted to urge the overruling of New York Times v. Sullivan. Justice Thomas has already persuasively demonstrated that New York Times was a policy-driven decision masquerading as constitutional law. As with the rest of the opinion, the actual malice requirement was simply cut from whole cloth. New York Times should be overruled on these grounds alone," Silberman said.
Alan Dershowitz proposes to narrow the exemption the media has from defamation suits with a sliding scale, whereby the more serious and hurtful the defamation, the greater the media's obligation to engage in due diligence to determine whether or not it is truthful or false. If they fail to exercise due diligence, they can be held liable for defamation.
- Majority opinion of Chief Justice Warren
- Concurring opinion of Justice Black
- Concurring opinion of Justice Goldberg
- ↑ 376 U.S. at 279-80.
- ↑ https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/17206/new-york-times-v-sullivan