Genevieve Lakier Examines Sullivan Standard in an Altered Media Landscape

Is the legal standard for libel outdated? Sarah Palin could help answer.

In recent years, an increasing number of influential voices have argued that perhaps the most famous First Amendment case in history might be wrong. This week, a federal court in Manhattan will begin a trial that could ultimately determine whether they’re right. The answer to that question has been billed as a pivotal moment in press freedom in the United States. But it is worth spending a moment to consider whether two words from a 58-year-old case should bear so much weight.

In 1964, the Supreme Court held in New York Times v. Sullivan that government officials could only win defamation lawsuits if they could show that false statements about them had been made with “actual malice” — that is, by someone who knew that the statements were false, or who recklessly disregarded that possibility. The court later extended this rule to defamation suits brought by public figures more generally, and in the intervening decades, the “Sullivan rule” became emblematic of the United States’ famously speech-protective approach to the regulation of the press.

The trial set to begin Thursday between Sarah Palin and the New York Times (after a delay for Palin’s covid-19 diagnosis) will hinge on the Sullivan rule. Whether Palin can prove that the Times defamed her in 2017 when it editorialized that “the link … was clear” between Palin’s campaign rhetoric and a 2011 mass shooting will depend on interpretation of the rule. So will similar cases elsewhere: an appeal pending between Cardi B. and a celebrity vlogger who defamed her by spreading false rumors about her private life, and a lawsuit that Dominion Voting Systems has brought against Fox News after the cable news channel reported that the company’s voting machines worked incorrectly during the 2020 election. Because “actual malice” is hard to prove, these cases will be difficult, although not impossible, to win.

Read more at The Washington Post

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