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Historical Impacts on Free Speech II: New York Times v. Sullivan and its Impact on Libel Law

In the Supreme Court Case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the Supreme Court expanded the protection of the First Amendment‘s right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press by protecting libelous claims, unless the claims were made with actual malice. Herbert Wechsler defended the New York Times during the Supreme Court hearing against Montgomery, Alabama Police Commissioner L. B. Sullivan, who found an ad in the New York Times to have made a libelous claim. Wechsler argued that libel is a form of speech that must be constitutionally protected because, without such protection, the ability for the public to form and circulate opposing ideas against public officials would be burdened with the fear of libel suits. Even when a claim is made with actual malice, or knowingly false and intentionally harmful, he argued that judges and juries should not be able to decide if such claims should have protection because this creates a chilling effect on publishers. For those claims to be discredited, public officials are burdened with addressing the public and clearing their name from the situation at hand.

Libel laws have been around long before the ruling in New York Times (1964). They were created to protect the reputations of public and private citizens against harmful statements by the press, whether the statements were true or false. Reputations were viewed to be of high value in the early formation of libel law. Thomas Jefferson, who was opposed to the Sedition Act of 1798, believed that the protection against libel cannot be granted by the federal government, but it can be granted at the state level. There were no mentions to libel in the First Amendment or anywhere else in the Constitution, therefore the states had the Tenth Amendment right to legislate on such matters. Libel laws have historically been used to silence public opposition to public officials in an effort to not damage their reputations or political careers. Libel laws seemed to have been increasingly enforced during periods of wartime, when opposition to the war or the government could arguably be harmful to the war effort.

The New York Times, which was one of the largest nationally read newspapers during this period, printed an ad titled ‘Heed Their Rising Voices.' The ad was utilized to discuss the horrific occurrences of racial discrimination and tension taking place in the South.

Sullivan's ad included the story of Dr. Martin Luther King’s incarceration and how he had been arrested seven times. This part of the ad, however, was proven to be false; Dr. King was only arrested four times. The ad also included a story about the police ringing the Alabama State College campus with shotguns and tear gas and when the students protested by refusing to re-register, the dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve the students. There had been no evidence at the time that the dining hall had ever been padlocked and the police did not ring the campus, although they were present on the day of the alleged incident. After Police Commissioner Sullivan spotted the ad in the New York Times, he sent a written demand for public retraction, which was required by Alabama state law before allowing a public officer recovery of punitive damages through libel action. The New York Times refused and Sullivan filed his claim. Sullivan was never mentioned in the ad specifically, but felt that the opposition to the action of the police was defamatory to his reputation as the police commissioner.

Arguing on behalf of The New York Times, Wechsler held that the First and Fourteenth Amendment were conflicted by state libel laws. The First Amendment states that the Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or the freedom of the press. The Fourteenth Amendment extends the restrictions placed on the Congress in the First Amendment to the various state governments. With this, he argued that, by allowing the states to have their own libel laws, the states have the ability to abridge the privileges of free speech and free press of the citizens residing in that state.

He also contended that, although the ad included false claims, they should not be punished because they were not made knowingly false by the New York Times and they were not published intentionally to harm Sullivan. Like Wechsler, Justice Black agreed that the First Amendment absolutely protects criticism of public officials and of public concern even when the speech is published with actual malice.

The decision of the Supreme Court based off of the formation of Wechsler’s argument expanded the freedom of speech and press to protect the publishing of libelous claims. The decision also moved the burden of proof in libel claims from the defendant to the plaintiff. The plaintiff is now expected to prove actual damages by showing that the speech was harmful in a way that caused injury to the plaintiff. The number of libel tort claims has decreased for it is difficult for the plaintiff to prove that statements were made with actual malice.

By shifting the burden of proof of injury onto the plaintiff instead of obliging the defendant to prove that libelous claims were not made both knowingly false and intentionally harmful, the Court ruled in favor of the people's right to free speech. Although libel laws still exist to an extent today, they are nowhere near as damaging to the core principles of liberty as they used to be. This is precisely why our current President does not have a lawsuit against every major media source. Although he claims that these sources constantly make statements that are false and damaging to his image as a public figure, President Trump lacks the ability to fight what he refers to as "Fake News" with any legal standing. Instead, Trump, like many Presidents before him, is forced to fight allegedly false and harmful claims through engaging publicly with the people.

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