Supreme Court justices could move to weaken a landmark libel ruling: NYT reporter

Neil Gorsuch
Neil Gorsuch.
  • Recent comments suggest The Supreme Court could reconsider a major libel case, New York Times Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak wrote.
  • In a dissent last month, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas said that it might be time to take a closer look at the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision.
  • The landmark ruling gives legal protections to the press when writing about public figures.
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Recent comments by conservative Supreme Court justices hint that the high court could look to weaken libel protections for reporters, a cause recently celebrated by Donald Trump, according to New York Times Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak.

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, in a dissent filed last month, noted that it might be time to take a closer look at the 1964 ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan, which makes it difficult for government officials to win libel suits against the press.

In the case that reached the nation's highest court in 1964, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in New York Times v. Sullivan that plaintiffs must not only prove defamation but also malice in order to have a case against the press.

That case forms the bedrock for modern libel law. But in recent years, conservative politicians have pushed to weaken those press protections.

Gorsuch's recent call to take another look at this case echoed Trump, who, on the 2016 campaign trail, promised to "open up those libel laws," Liptak noted.

Liptak said that a shift in libel law could have a chilling effect on press freedom and fundamentally alter the state of American journalism.

RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor at the University of Utah claimed, told Liptak: "[The ruling] is a key way that we make sure that government officials and other people in power can't silence their critics. It would be a massive blow to American-style free speech to lose it."

But that blow won't be coming in the court's next few cases. Though Gorsuch and Thomas wanted to revisit the libel law, the wider court declined to take up the case.

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