Justice Thomas is wrong; NYT v. Sullivan shouldn’t be overturned


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The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Justice Clarence Thomas has made a call for the high court to reconsider the precedent set by the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan, a decision that makes public figures prove that the person or organization they are suing acted with actual malice or “reckless disregard.” In other words, they have to prove that a person knew something to be incorrect or false, and published it anyway.

He’s wrong to suggest that this case is anything less than absolutely vital to our country because overturning it could set back press freedom by years and give more unnecessary power to big-name people and large corporations.

This was a case that set a valuable precedent for the news media by making it harder for public people to win libel suits against newspapers. The original suit against the Times was over an ad that contained some small errors but was published to try and get national attention on the Civil Rights Movement.

The lawsuit from L.B. Sullivan, a city commissioner in Montgomery whose name was not mentioned in the ad, and others was an excuse to distract from the important Civil Rights movement. The whole suit was birthed out of powerful men seeking to starve human rights and using their power and platform to attempt to silence those who stood in their way.

As the Times article reads: “It was one of many suits filed by Southern politicians eager to starve the civil rights movement of the oxygen of national attention. They used libel suits as a way to discourage coverage of the movement by national news organizations.”

The resulting decision in favor of the New York Times was an amazing turn in our history. It was a turn that evened the scales to let the press report on the controversial things in our country and surrounding our public figures. The original decision declared that “A State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves ‘actual malice’ — that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”

Though our normal system of justice dictates that a person is innocent until proven guilty, it’s a little different when we deal with public figures, who by nature usually have more resources and financial backing than the papers they might wish to sue.

This precedent is so important because it allows the press freedom to report on politicians, for example, who may not always like the things reported on them. Should it be overturned as Justice Thomas has suggested it should, the scales would be unbalanced in favor of public figures. Should a politician or celebrity dislike any unfavorable coverage on their person, they could sue a newspaper over the things they don’t like, regardless of how true it may be. Though a good paper will be able to prove the honesty of their side, should they get the chance, they could go out of business in the process of fighting the suit.

According to the Times article, Justice Thomas believes the court’s decision at that time was “policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law” and he is using the recent libel suit from one of Bill Cosby’s accusers (a suit that was overturned because she was deemed a public figure at the time) as his example of what he sees as a flawed system.

Justice Thomas is reaching too far on this one. We must instead look at the bigger picture of what overturning this decision would do to our country and the freedoms we currently enjoy and we must not allow ourselves and our democracy to slip back to a point where press outlets are pawns in the hands of the wealthy.