US Supreme Court declines to hear SPLC defamation case challenging 1960s precedent
MarkThomas / Pixabay
US Supreme Court declines to hear SPLC defamation case challenging 1960s precedent

The US Supreme Court Monday declined to hear a case where a Christian ministry sued the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) over being labeled a hate group. The appellants in Coral Ridge Ministries v. SPLC  asked the court to review its 1964 decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which held that public figures cannot sue for defamation unless they can prove that defamatory statements were circulated with “actual malice.” Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court’s denial of certiorari.

Appellants Coral Ridge Ministries claimed that “Sullivan‘s near-absolute prohibition on public officials bringing libel claims cannot trace its roots to the Founding, and its extension to every public figure is fundamentally untethered from the original understanding of the First Amendment.”

Thomas sympathized with Coral Ridge’s assertion and said, using statements from his previous writings:

Coral Ridge now asks us to reconsider the “actual malice” standard. As I have said previously, ‘we should.’ ‘New York Times and the Court’s decisions extending it were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law.’ Those decisions have ‘no relation to the text, history, or structure of the Constitution.’

Thomas also commented that “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.”

The court did not provide any reasoning for the majority’s decision to deny certiorari.

Coral Ridge Ministries sued the SPLC over the SPLC’s labeling of Coral Ridge as an anti-LGBTQ hate group. This designation resulted in Coral Ridge being ineligible to receive donations from Amazon’s charity program, AmazonSmile.

The US District Court for the Northern District of Alabama used the precedent set in Sullivan to dismiss Coral Ridge’s suit on the grounds that the SPLC’s claims were not provable as false and were not made with actual malice. The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the district court’s dismissal.