New York Times v. Sullivan: The Case for Preserving an Essential Precedent
MLRC has asked multiple experts to examine each of the major contentions that undergird the Justices’ calls for Sullivan to be revisited. Collectively, they make an unassailable case that Sullivan’s rendition of the First Amendment-based limitations on libel law was correct when the case was decided and that it remains equally correct today.
Even the most enthusiastic praise of a Supreme Court ruling does not necessarily mean that the case was correctly decided or that its reasoning was flawless. So it is well worth revisiting the ruling and assessing its impact on libel law and First Amendment law more generally.
In this White Paper, MLRC has asked multiple experts to examine each of the major contentions that undergird the Justices’ calls for Sullivan to be revisited. Collectively, they make an unassailable case that Sullivan’s rendition of the First Amendment-based limitations on libel law was correct when the case was decided and that it remains equally correct today.
This Chapter provides the missing historical context to assess Justice Thomas’ originalist attacks on Sullivan; along the way, it suggests that history, rather than undercutting Sullivan, supports the Court’s constitutionalization of the common law of libel.
In his dissent in Berisha, Justice Gorsuch calls for reconsideration of a cornerstone of American constitutional law. Despite the absence of credible evidence that New York Times Co. v. Sullivan’s strong protections have degraded journalism, he raises a purported historical question: Does Sullivan’s rationale no longer hold because the media landscape that existed in 1964 has evolved (or, rather, devolved)? The premises of that question, however, are incorrect, on both the facts and the law.
It is the aim of this Chapter to quantify empirically what happens in defamation cases against the news media in a broader and more complete context than the Media Law Resource Center has undertaken in the past and to dispel some misconceptions about what conclusions can be drawn from our previously published trial data.
Decades of experience applying the Sullivan standard demonstrates the substantial value it brings to contemporary libel cases brought by public officials and public figures, and the importance of maintaining this protection.
The modest purpose of this overview is to shed light on an overseas branch of our “legal family tree”—and perhaps glimpse at what our branch could suffer were we to abandon Sullivan.