Supreme Court Decides Not To Revisit Libel Standards -- For Now

It’s been a heck of a stretch for the U.S. Supreme Court as its conservative supermajority seeks to roll back many long-accepted norms in American society. In one decision after the other over the last seven days, the court has staked out positions that most Americans view as reactionary.

The 49-year-old right of bodily autonomy for women, as expressed in the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, was overturned. The right of states to place limits on carrying guns outside the home was overturned, with the court declaring that a 111-year-old New York State law was at odds with the Second Amendment.

The Supreme Court limited the ability to enforce Miranda rights in a ruling that said that suspects who are not warned about their right to remain silent nevertheless can’t sue a police officer for damages, even if the evidence was ultimately used against them in their criminal trial.

Further, a ruling is expected soon that could curtail the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate power plant emissions.

So in this week of radical change, it’s good news at least that the court on Monday declined to revisit a landmark First Amendment decision, leaving a higher bar for libel from 1964 in place. For now.



In the case, a not-for-profit Christian group -- Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. -- sought to sue the Southern Poverty Law Center for defamation for calling Coral Ridge a “hate group” -- a designation that appears on the SPLC website and is used in some of its fundraising materials, publications, and training programs.

In court papers, the SPLC said that Coral Ridge calls homosexual conduct “lawless,” an “abomination” and “shameful.”

Coral Ridge lost in lower courts and subsequently filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking to revisit the libel standard.

“This Court’s ‘actual-malice’ standard, invented for a particular time and a particular purpose, has become obsolete and does not serve any of the interests it was designed to protect by limiting private individuals from bringing defamation claims against other private companies or individuals,” David Gibbs, a lawyer for Coral Ridge, told the justices, according to a report on CNN. 

The 1964 decision “no longer acts as a bulwark to protect civil rights,” Gibbs continued in the CNN report, but instead has become "a sword used to bludgeon public figures with impunity while hiding behind this Court’s mistaken view of the First Amendment.”

The SPLC argued that court precedents “belie the notion that actual malice presents an insurmountable hurdle for public-figure defamation plaintiffs.”

The landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling, New York Times Company v. Sullivan, established that for public officials — later broadened to include public figures —it wasn’t enough to show that an article was inaccurate and harmed their reputation. Malice had to be proven.

But in recent years, calls have escalated -- largely from conservative or Republican legal experts and public officials, including two current Supreme Court justices -- for media outlets to pay a heavier price for their mistakes. As the Times itself noted in a report on Sunday, these academics, judges and elected officials have “started to press their case more boldly for unwinding the bedrock precedent set by the Sullivan case, saying it has not kept pace with the changing nature of news and public commentary.”

Last year, for example, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the actual malice standard was crafted in a time when journalism was produced by large organizations with access to skilled editors and fact checkers. Now, the media landscape is filled with commentary on social media and internet platforms used to spread misinformation. The 1964 standard, he wrote, has created an “effective immunity from liability.”

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