Libel: Thomas’ call for more lawsuits
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas “has just opened another front in the war on the media,” said The Boston Globe in an editorial. Writing in a concurring opinion on a libel case last week, Thomas volunteered that the court should overturn its landmark 1964 ruling, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which protects journalists from frivolous libel suits by elected officials and other public figures. Sullivan requires public figures suing for libel to prove that news organizations said something false that damaged their reputations—and that the journalists knew the disputed statement was false or acted with “reckless disregard” in publishing it. In an opinion joined by no other justices, Thomas argued that public figures—like him, or say, President Trump—should be able to more easily sue news organizations for “reputational harm.”
That would have a deeply chilling impact on our nation’s free press, said Will Bunch in Philly.com. Before Sullivan, Alabama’s segregationist public officials successfully sued black ministers and The New York Times for libel in state courts for exposing their attempts to silence the civil rights movement—setting that movement back for years. After Sullivan, the press was more freely able to expose official misconduct in the Vietnam War, Watergate, and countless cases of abuse of power and corruption. Why does Thomas—and his ideological ally, Trump—“long for an America where powerful people like them cannot be held accountable”? Thomas, however, “does have a point,” said Cass Sunstein in Bloomberg.com. This is an era in which anyone with a Twitter account or a blog can accuse someone of being “a pedophile, a drug peddler, an arsonist, or a prostitute.” In minutes, “the lie goes around the world.” We need some creative adjustments to libel law “to protect people from having their reputations shattered.”
Nonetheless, this probably isn’t the best time to “throw out a bedrock precedent protecting the press,” said Tim Dickinson in RollingStone.com. Just last week, Trump reacted to a parody skit on Saturday Night Live by tweeting his disbelief that TV networks “get away with” mocking him “without retribution.” Indeed, Trump has repeatedly called for an overhaul of libel law so that “when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” If Trump and Thomas had their way, it would subject the country’s news organizations to a blizzard of lawsuits that might silence them for good.