Justice Thomas Wants to Make It Easier for People to Sue Media Outlets for Libel

Justice Clarence Thomas stated Monday that he believes the Supreme Court should review a decades-old precedent concerning libel law. This is a signal that he is willing to overturn more landmark cases, and possibly open media outlets to attacks.

Monday’s hearing was denied by the Supreme Court Coral Ridge Ministries Media v. Southern Poverty Law Center(SPLC), where the Christian advocacy group sued for defamation after it was designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate organization by the SPLC. Coral Ridge was thus excluded from Amazon’s donation program. The SPLC was sued first by the group in 2017. Two lower courts have since dismissed the case.

The case is being challenged a precedentEstablished via The New York Times v. Sullivan, stating that a public figure must prove “actual malice” in libel charges they’re waging against another party. It protects a wide range ofMedia outlets are protected from lawsuits and is hailed by legal experts asProtecting freedom of speech and freedom from the press is vital.

Thomas dissented from the Court’s opinion, arguing that Coral Ridge’s case has merit. “Coral Ridge maintained that although it ‘opposes homosexual conduct’ based on its religious beliefs, it is in no sense a ‘hate group,’” he wrote, reiterating the group’s argument.

“This case is one of many showing how New York Times and its progeny have allowed media organizations and interest groups ‘to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity,’” he continued. “SPLC’s ‘hate group’ designation lumped Coral Ridge’s Christian ministry with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis.”

Thomas has called for overturning the “actual malice” standard before. In 2019He also wrote opinions in defamation cases before the Court in 2021 and 2021. At least one other justice agrees with the Supreme Court that the Court should reconsider. NYT v. Sullivan; Neil Gorsuch has also calledFor the Court to reconsider the precedent.

“Large numbers of newspapers and periodicals have failed,” Gorsuch wrote in 2021, dissenting to the Court’s decision not to take up a libel case in which a former prime minister of Albania’s son alleged that a book falsely connected him to an arms deal. “Network news has lost most of its viewers. With their fall has come the rise of 24-hour cable news and online media platforms that ‘monetize anything that garners clicks.’”

The right has been pushing for a weakening constitutional protections of media outlets and figures for many years. first years in officeEx-President Donald Trump took issue in a book by Bob Woodward that painted an unflattering portrait of him. In a tweet in 2017, he said that it was a “shame” that “someone can write an article or book, totally make up stories and form a picture of a person that is literally the exact opposite of the fact, and get away with it without retribution or cost.”

In 2020, the Trump campaignA lawsuit was filed alleging that the New York TimesHe had defamed him in an opinion piece connecting Trump’s campaign with Russian officials, who the opinion piece claimed worked to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton 2016. The case was eventually dismissed.

Legal experts have raised concern about right-wing justices’ willingness to overturn NYT v. Sullivan. As experts in media law, we have seen an increase of corporate interests and politicians bringing libel cases against their opponents over the past few decades. George Freeman and Lee Levine wrote in The Washington PostMarch

“In our experience, these cases are not typically intended to secure compensation for actual injury to reputation,” they wrote. “Instead, they are intended to punish the media for speaking truth to power and to dissuade it from doing so in the future. And many of these cases are funded not by the allegedly aggrieved plaintiff, but by wealthy individuals and institutions with ideological or political axes to grind and scores to settle.”