New York Times v. Sullivan is one of the two or three most important free speech cases in American history. In essence, New York Times held that reporters and other individuals cannot be held liable for making unintentionally false statements against public figures so long as they do not do so with “reckless disregard of whether [their statement] was false or not.” Without this decision, every writer, reporter and blogger in the country would live in constant fear that if they relied on the wrong source or made any of a number of innocent mistakes, the result could be financial ruin.
Indeed, nothing highlights the danger of a different legal regime more than the facts of the New York Times case themselves. Civil rights advocates ran an ad in the New York Times that includes a number of trivial factual errors, such as claiming Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been arrested seven times when in fact he at only been arrested four times when the ad ran. Based on these minor errors, an Alabama court ordered the New York Times and the civil rights leaders to pay $500,000 in a transparent effort to shut down speech critical of Jim Crow — a practice which was very common in the segregationist south. So New York Times v. Sullivan did not simply protect journalism generally, it ended the apartheid states’ practice of deliberately intimidating people who report on civil rights by awarding massive libel awards to segregationists.
During a recent Charlie Rose interview, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had this to say about the decision:
One of the evolutionary provisions that I abhor is New York Times v. Sullivan. It made a very good system that you can libel public figures at will so long as somebody told you something — some reliable person — told you the lie that you then publicized to the whole world. That’s what New York Times v. Sullivan says. That may well be a good system and the people of New York state could have adopted that by law, but for the Supreme Court to say that the Constitution requires that — that’s not what the people understood when they ratified the First Amendment. . . .
The issue is “who decides?” Who decides what’s right? And it’s the people. The background rule is democracy, and the rule of democracy is the majority rules.
Scalia’s professed love of democracy is admirable, but the truth is that Scalia only believes in the democratic process when democracy does what he wants it to do. He was one of the five justices who voted to give the presidency to George W. Bush, and he voted to strike down the Affordable Care Act based on reasoning that, in the words of a leading conservative judge, had no basis “in either the text of the Constitution or Supreme Court precedent.”