* Likely, most readers of this blog have heard of the landmark U.S.
Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan, which came down in
1964. That case imposed a big limitation on the state law of libel,
said to be based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
* The law of libel — which is a matter of state rather than federal
law, and mostly of common law rather than statutory law — generally
allows a plaintiff to sue someone who harms his reputation by
publishing false statements about him. At the time of the New York
Times decision in the 1960s, there was widespread perception that
state libel rules were being abused by public officials to silence
legitimate criticism of them by the press.
* The holding of New York Times v. Sullivan was that, to be consistent
with the First Amendment, a public official cannot sue for libel,
even based on published false statements, unless the official proves
that the publisher acted with “actual malice” in making the
statements. Subsequent federal court decisions have expanded the
protections of the rule to apply not only to “public officials,” but
also to “public figures” — a broad and indefinite category that might
include anyone who speaks out on any subject of public interest.
* But has the pendulum now swung too far?
Read on »