Yesterday, The Atlantic celebrated the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal decision in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) with a reminder of the story behind the case and the great impact it has had on free speech. In Sullivan, the Court held that a public official bringing a defamation suit had to show that the defendant not only published a false statement about the official but also did so with “actual malice”—in other words, reporters who make honest mistakes about public officials would not be held liable for those mistakes.
In his article, Andrew Cohen noted the context of the case and why the Court’s decision was critically important:
[T]he case arose in the heat of the civil rights movement and … state libel laws, like the Alabama statute that the Court struck down, were routinely used as weapons by local officials to scare journalists away from covering the worst government excesses of that period.
Cohen also puts into perspective the ways in which history might have been altered had the Court reached a different result:
It’s also important to remember that until Sullivan, the First Amendment had traditionally been interpreted very narrowly. So narrowly, in fact, that the concept of libel was widely thought to be beyond constitutional purview. Let me put it this way (and I’m not the first to suggest this): If there were no Sullivan, there likely would not have been a release of the Pentagon Papers or a rigorous investigation into Watergate or much of any withering criticism of government that appears today in any medium.
And, as the New York Times editorial board noted Saturday, the case continues to affect speech nationwide, particularly as journalists and ordinary citizens alike take it upon themselves to challenge those in positions of power:
Its core observations and principles remain unchallenged, even as the Internet has turned everyone into a worldwide publisher — capable of calling public officials instantly to account for their actions, and also of ruining reputations with the click of a mouse.
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