The killer 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan is oxygen for investigative journalists. The ruling means public officials have a tough time winning damages from news outlets that report nasty things about them. For a politician or a celebrity to successfully make the case that they’ve been libeled, they have to prove that the offending statement “was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”
Here’s a little taste of the court’s decision:
Thus, we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.
In a recent ‘Charlie Rose’ interview that might well horrify tabloid executives across the land, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made clear that he “abhors” that ruling.
Here’s how the justice short-hands the court’s finding: “You can libel public figures at will so long as somebody told you something, some reliable person told you the lie that you then publicized to the whole world — that’s what New York Times v. Sullivan says.”
It’s not that Scalia takes issue with the principles behind the decision. They may well be sound and constructive, he says. But that doesn’t mean that the Supreme Court had any business messing around with centuries-old understandings of free speech.
When the First Amendment was ratified, he argues, “Nobody thought that libel, even libel of public figures, was permitted, was sanctioned by the First Amendment. Where did that come from? Who told Earl Warren and the Supreme Court that what had been accepted libel law for a couple hundred years was no longer accepted.”
[h/t Business Insider]