Posted in Our Blog on March 10, 2014
The law on defamation as established in the US Supreme Court case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivanwas just recently utilized in overturning an $8 million jury verdict against singer Courtney Love. Love had posted a message to Twitter critical of her attorney, but quickly erased it and claimed in court that she believed she was posting a private direct message rather than a publicly-available Tweet.
The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision from 50 years ago overturned a judgment against the New York Times charging the newspaper with publishing defamatory comments about elected officials in Alabama-in particular, Montgomery public safety commission L.B. Sullivan-during the Civil Rights Movement. While the Times had called out police in general and hadn’t mentioned Sullivan by name, Sullivan demanded a retraction. When the paper refused, Sullivan filed a libel suit against the company, winning $500,000 in punitive damages.
The case was appealed, ending up all the way at the US Supreme Court. In overturning the verdict in favor of the newspaper, the Court had set a tremendously important precedent for freedom of the press. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan established what’s known as the “actual malice” standard, wherein a plaintiff can only succeed in a defamation suit if he or she can prove the defendant intentionally-and not inadvertently-harmed the plaintiff. This sets a heavy burden of proof on the plaintiff; the plaintiff must now prove that the defamatory statement is false and that the false statement was made knowingly or “with reckless disregard for the truth.”
Fearful of more lawsuits, the Times had pulled its reporters out of Alabama and stopped reporting on civil rights matters there, not wanting to anger more powerful public officials through its reporting. After the Supreme Court’s decision, the paper was able to resume its coverage
With the press as our best watchdog and protection-particularly when it comes to monitoring our elected officials-the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan decision is one of the most important on the books. Thanks to the highest court in this nation’s proper respect for Freedom of the Press, media outlets can report without fear of unjust or expensive lawsuits.