A Supreme Court decision made it very hard for public figures to sue for defamation. That’s hard on public figures, but they have platforms and it contributes to robust press freedom. From Andrew P. Napolitano at lewrockwell.com:
In a week, the Supreme Court will decide if it will consider diminishing long-standing protections for the freedom of the press. Here is the backstory.
In 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed a jury verdict by an Alabama state court and in doing so changed the law of defamation in such a manner as to enhance substantially and materially the freedom of the press.
The case was Times v. Sullivan, in which the police commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama, sued The New York Times for publishing a full-page advertisement that, he argued, though it did not mention him by name, had defamed him.
The libel law in Alabama and all states at the time permitted an aggrieved plaintiff to recover damages from a publisher for a defamatory inaccuracy in a publication by showing simple negligence.
In the advertisement about which Commissioner L.B. Sullivan complained, there were some inaccuracies, and so the Alabama Supreme Court upheld his half million-dollar verdict. The Times appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In reversing, the Supreme Court ruled that when a public official is the plaintiff in a defamation case, the First Amendment is implicated since the press is the eyes and ears of the public, and the public has the right to know what the public official is doing.
This was a radical and judge-made change in defamation law. The court held that, to safe-guard transparency about government and to protect free speech about public officials, a higher bar than simple negligence was needed. The court fashioned a bar called “actual malice.”