Supreme Court’s Dissent Gives Hope to Victims of Media Smears

Posted: Aug 11, 2022 12:01 AM

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The most famous defense of free speech in the Western world hails from John Stuart Mill.  The 18th century philosopher was a free speech absolutist. In support of free speech in a utopian marketplace of ideas, Mill argued that truth prevails when there is unfettered debate. Mill’s argument is delineated in his essay, On Liberty, written more than 150 years ago.Till this day, borders between permissible and impermissible forms of speech are highly contested, but media is allotted special protection.  In a 1964 landmark case, New York Times v. Sullivan, Supreme Court declared that to be able to sue journalists, aggrieved parties need to be able to prove “actual malice”.  Seemingly picking up from Mill’s veneration of the marketplace of ideas, Sullivan unintentionally empowered journalists and social media activists to publish lies with virtual impunity.However, recent dissenting opinions by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch demonstrate that the Supreme Court may finally set boundaries to media’s free speech absolutism.  Sullivan initially intended to empower people to criticize public officials, setting a high threshold for defamation claims that required known falsehoods or reckless disregard for the truth.  The Sullivan doctrine was later extended to public figures, a category that includes celebrities, business executives and many others. Sullivan came about at a time when the internet did not exist and social media was an unknown …

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