Those who argue that the news media should pay a steeper price for mistakes are pushing to have a landmark Supreme Court ruling overturned.
The Florida governor’s antipathy toward media has been a key part of his brand during a rise in GOP politics. Free speech advocates fear a new libel bill goes too far in codifying that attitude. Pictured: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at his roundtable discussion on “legacy media defamation,” which marked the start of a new legislative push to make it easier to sue for libel.
“It is ironic that Fox is relying on a landmark case that was designed to help the news media play the watchdog role in a democracy and is under attack by Gov. DeSantis, Donald Trump and other figures who have been untethered in their attacks on journalists as enemies of the people,” said Jane Hall, a communication professor at American University.
From the start of his presidential bid, Donald Trump took full advantage of the public’s growing mistrust of the mainstream press. The journalists tirelessly chronicling the near-daily scandals erupting from his White House were “scum,” he taunted. They were dishonest, he insisted. They were “the enemy of the people.” Now, more than a year after Trump’s presidential term ended, three volatile lawsuits forged in the culture-war fire he stoked are making their way through the legal system.
A senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said that liberal media bias — “nearly all television — network and cable — is a Democratic Party trumpet,” for example — has resulted in such abuse of the landmark Times v. Sullivan requirement that speech relating to public officials has to show actual malice to be actionably defamatory that the longstanding precedent should be overturned.
The Virginia Press Association asked Friday to intervene in a $50 million lawsuit Johnny Depp filed against Amber Heard, his ex-wife. Depp says he was defamed by an op-ed piece Heard wrote in The Washington Post in December 2018, in which she never identified Depp by name but referred to herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.”
Justice Clarence Thomas on Tuesday called for the Supreme Court to reconsider New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 ruling interpreting the First Amendment to make it hard for public officials to prevail in libel suits. He said the decision was the product of unprincipled “legal alchemy” that had no basis in the Constitution as understood by the people who drafted and ratified it.
Fortunately libel law, overall, is in good shape—and is protective of speech, particularly on matters of public concern. What is cause for concern, though, are the baseless threats and the filing of so many high-profile flimsy suits. They can chill speech on public issues.
President Trump on Wednesday repeated a pledge to change the nation’s libel laws in a way that would make it easier for people to sue news organizations and publishers for defamation, another salvo from a president who has expressed hostility toward longstanding press freedoms.
Donald Trump suggested in an interview Sunday that America’s protections for the press might go too far and that the country’s libel and slander laws would be better if they were changed to more closely resemble the United Kingdom’s.
Donald Trump said as president he would take steps to make it easier for him to sue the media. The GOP presidential front-runner made the comments during a rally in Fort Worth, Texas on Friday. “I’m going to up open up those libel laws, so when The New York Times and The Washington Post writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money,” Trump said.
When New York Times v. Sullivan was decided by the Supreme Court 50 years ago Sunday, newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations were the primary means of publishing. Today, the case applies equally to new media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Because of the ease of publishing online, more people may claim the protections granted by the decision and others that followed.