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Commenting on Mass. case, Justice Clarence Thomas calls for reconsideration of landmark libel ruling

FILE -- Associate Justice Clarence Thomas joins the rest of the Supreme Court justices in sitting for a group photo in Washington on Nov. 30, 2018. Thomas on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, called for the Supreme Court to reconsider New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 ruling interpreting the First Amendment to make it hard for public officials to prevail in libel suits. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Doug Mills/The New York Times
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas

WASHINGTON — Justice Clarence Thomas on Tuesday called for the Supreme Court to reconsider New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 ruling interpreting the First Amendment to make it hard for public officials to prevail in libel suits.

He said the decision was the product of unprincipled “legal alchemy” that had no basis in the Constitution as understood by the people who drafted and ratified it.

“New York Times and the court’s decisions extending it were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law,” Thomas wrote.

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Thomas, writing only for himself, made his statement in a concurring opinion agreeing that the court had correctly turned down an appeal from Kathrine McKee, who has accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. She sued Cosby for libel in US District Court in Massachusetts, after his lawyer accused her of dishonesty, and she lost based on cases stemming from the 1964 decision.

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“I agree with the court’s decision not to take up” McKee’s case, Thomas wrote. “I write to explain why, in an appropriate case, we should reconsider the precedents that require courts to ask it in the first place.”

“We did not begin meddling in this area until 1964, nearly 175 years after the First Amendment was ratified,” Thomas wrote of the Sullivan decision, which placed constitutional limits on what had until then been state-law claims. “The states are perfectly capable of striking an acceptable balance between encouraging robust public discourse and providing a meaningful remedy for reputational harm. We should reconsider our jurisprudence in this area.”

Thomas’s statement came in the wake of complaints from President Donald Trump that libel laws make it too hard for public officials to win libel suits.

“I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said on the campaign trail. “We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”

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It is indeed hard for public figures to win libel suits. They have to prove that something false was said about them, that it harmed their reputation and that the writer acted with “actual malice.” That last term is misleading, as it has nothing to do with the ordinary meaning of malice in the sense of spite or ill will.

To prove actual malice under the Sullivan decision, a libel plaintiff must show that the writer knew the disputed statement was false or had acted with “reckless disregard.” That second phrase is also a term of art. The Supreme Court has said that it requires proof that the writer entertained serious doubts about the truth of the statement.

Thomas questioned those standards.

“There appears to be little historical evidence suggesting that the New York Times actual-malice rule flows from the original understanding of the First or Fourteenth Amendment,” he wrote.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016, routinely made the same point in his speeches. Trump’s two Supreme Court appointees — Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh — expressed support for broad libel protections in their opinions as appeals court judges.

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At his Supreme Court confirmation hearings in March 2017, Gorsuch was asked about New York Times v. Sullivan by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. She wanted to know whether “the First Amendment would permit public officials to sue the media under any standard less demanding than actual malice?”

Gorsuch, reticent when asked about other precedents, seemed comfortable with preserving that one.

“New York Times v. Sullivan was, as you say, a landmark decision and it changed pretty dramatically the law of defamation and libel in this country,” he said. “Rather than the common law of defamation and libel, applicable normally for a long time, the Supreme Court said the First Amendment has special meaning and protection when we’re talking about the media, the press in covering public officials, public actions and indicated that a higher standard of proof was required in any defamation or libel claim. Proof of actual malice is required to state a claim.”

“That’s been the law of the land for, gosh, 50, 60 years,” he said.

In 2015, Kavanaugh, still an appeals court judge, wrote that posing provocative questions generally cannot be the basis for a libel suit, choosing an interesting example.

“Of course,” Kavanaugh wrote, “some commentators and journalists use questions — such as the classic “Is the President a crook?” — as tools to raise doubts (sometimes unfairly) about a person’s activities or character while simultaneously avoiding defamation liability.”