The US Supreme Court turned away a case challenging libel protections for journalists and the media enshrined in a landmark 1964 ruling on Friday. However, dissenting opinions from conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch questioned the rationale behind the continued use of these legal protections.
The conservative Justices’ opinions signaled a recognition of the drastically different media environment in which modern news is consumed and propagated while identifying the continued importance of the First Amendment.
The court declined to take up the petitioned appeal by Shkelzën Berisha, the son of former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who accused author Guy Lawson of defamation for corruption allegations in his 2015 book “Arms and the Dudes.” The book was adapted into the 2016 movie War Dogs.
A judge for the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that Lawson was protected by the principles espoused in New York Times Co v. Sullivan (1964), protecting media entities from damages related to possible defamation of a public figure unless the figure can prove “‘actual malice’ – that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”
The Appellate Judge concluded that “[a]t worst, the book misidentified where they claimed to have received [the defaming] information,” and not that Lawson claimed Berisha actually did what was implied by the story. The Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the lower court and refused to hear the case.
However, in their dissents, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch raised questions about continued support for Sullivan.
Justice Thomas said that the court in Sullivan “provided scant explanation for the decision to erect a new hurdle for public-figure plaintiffs” and that the effect of a public figure’s “lies impose real harm.” Thomas cited the “Pizza-gate” shooting and the need for increased home security after online accusations towards or by public figures as examples.
Justice Gorusch exhumed from the First Amendment the need for those exercising freedom of the press to “get the facts right,” presuming that publishers should not be exempt from the potential damage their publications could have on members of the public.
Gorusch explicitly recognized the technological advancements since Sullivan, stating that “today virtually anyone . . . can publish virtually anything for immediate consumption virtually anywhere in the world” and that “online media platforms . . . ‘monetize anything that garners clicks.'”