Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Professor Reynolds on Libel Laws

2/27/19 USA Today has a column by Professor Reynolds applauding Justice Thomas' questioning of the absurdly expansive reading of freedom of the press that came out of New York Times v. Sullivan (1064).  This case was a curious intersection of some minor factual errors in an NAACP attack on pro-segregation public officials, a local whites-only jury awarding a huge defamation award, and Amendment 7:
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Once the Alabama jury had decided that the minor errors of fact were worth $500,000, this fact was effectively not up for review in any higher court.  The NAACP would have been driven into bankruptcy, largely destroying the Civil Rights Movement.  So the Court created an extension of free speech that made libel of first public officials, and then nearly all public figures, meaningless.  To win a libel suit now, a public figure has to demonstrate malice and negligence.  This explains the carelessness of much of the news media since 1964; why be careful?


  1. IANAL but I understand from a few law classes that the Supreme court and other appeals courts have lowered excessive damage awards before, in fact this happened in several of the more ridiculous product liability cases that made the news. What stopped them from reducing it in this case?

  2. Bombloader80: If there is a misapplication of the law, the appellate courts can order retrial. In this case, the issue was that the jury's decision about the level of damage and that this was libel could not be reconsidered.