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Thomas, Gorsuch say Supreme Court should reconsider landmark 1964 First Amendment ruling

New York Times v. Sullivan established high bar for public figures to sue for libel.

Published: July 2, 2021 5:56pm

Updated: July 2, 2021 9:07pm

Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas on Friday urged their colleagues to reconsider a landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling that established the high bar that public figures have to clear in order to sue media outlets for libel.

The court this week said it would not take up a case brought by an Albanian national regarding allegedly libelous allegations in a book written by American author Efraim Diveroli.

The landmark 1964 ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan held that public officials must prove that news organizations acted with "actual malice" when publishing false or defamatory material. That standard set in place a significant hurdle that public figures must jump over before successfully bringing a libel lawsuit against media outlets. 

In dissent of the Court’s decision this week, Gorsuch argued that, in the intervening 57 years, the U.S. media landscape "has shifted in ways few could have foreseen." He cited the much broader media environment in which "virtually anyone in this country can publish virtually anything for immediate con- sumption virtually anywhere in the world."

If the "actual malice" standard "had force in a world with comparatively few platforms for speech," Gorsuch wrote, "it’s less obvious what force it has in a world in which everyone carries a soapbox in their hands."

Thomas, who has argued for years that the Court should reconsider Sullivan, wrote in his own dissent that "the proliferation of falsehoods is, and always has been, a serious matter." 

"Instead of continuing to insulate those who perpetrate lies from traditional remedies like libel suits, we should give them only the protection the First Amendment requires," he said.

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