New York Times v. Sullivan, “Breathing Space” And Freedom Of Information

“Whatever is added to the field of libel [individual privacy] is taken from the field of free debate [freedom of information].”

Daniel J. Klau (March 13, 2014) (paraphrasing New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)).

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Fifty years (and 4 days) ago, the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark defamation case, New York Times v. Sullivan, which established the “actual malice” standard for defamation claims against public officials.  That standard requires a public official who brings a defamation suit to establish not only that the challenged statements are false and defamatory, but also that the defendant made the statements with: i) actual knowledge of their falsity, or ii) reckless disregard for their probable falsity.  That is a heavy burden for a public official to meet and, not surprisingly, the actual malice standard greatly reduces the likelihood of a newspaper or other media entity being held legally responsible for libeling a public official.  Face it, as much as many people dislike the media, reporters and editors generally are not in the habit of saying things that they know for a fact to be untrue.

What does any of this have to do with freedom of information? I’m getting there, I promise.

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