Clarence Thomas signals SCOTUS may revisit media libel precedent

Court’s new conservative majority could overturn other precedents after Roe ruling

Norma McCorvey's daughter speaks out about overturning of Roe v Wade

The Supreme Court should revisist the standard for libel established decades ago by the Court which has protected media organisations from vengeful public officials, Justice Clarence Thomas says.

The startling remark was made in a dissent Mr Thomas filed on Monday as part of the Court’s decision on Coral Ridge Ministries vs the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in which the court declined to issue a ruling overturning the landmark New York Times vs Sullivan case that established America’s libel standard. In his dissent, Mr Thomas wrote that he thought the Court should revisit that standard.

"I would grant certiorari in this case to revisit the 'actual malice' standard," Mr Thomas wrote plainly. He claimed that the standard set in Sullivan had “allowed media organizations and interest groups 'to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity’.”

No other justices signed on to Mr Thomas’s dissent, and there’s little indication as of yet that other conservatives on the Court would join him. Still, the private thoughts of the justices on the matter are unknown and following the Court’s reversal of decades of precedent with the overturning of Roe vs Wade on Friday there’s no reason to assume that New York Times vs Sullivan is as settled as any other precedent.

The “actual malice” standard established in Sullivan requires aggrieved parties to prove that a media publisher acted to publish information they knew was false with the purpose of harming one’s reputation; the standard is what protects journalists from lawsuits over mistakes and protects opinion writers and pundits from being sued over remarks that state their own opinions about public figures. The standard is higher for public figures than it is for private citizens who are not thought to be in the “public eye”.

It most recently protected the Times against a lawsuit filed by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin over an article which erroneously linked her rhetoric to a shooting in Arizona. The newspaper printed a correction, but Ms Palin sued the company and lost due to being unable to prove that the Times knew the assertion was false when it was printed.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority shocked many with its overturn of Roe vs Wade in a decision Friday that was previewed weeks earlier in an unprecedented leak of the draft decision from the Court itself. The end of federally-protected abortion rights signaled to many that the Court’s conservatives are planning to target other precedents that have dealt blows to the right, including the Obama-era ruling establishing gay marriage as a protected right for millions of Americans.

The Court and its justices, Mr Thomas in particular, now face a historic legitimacy crisis which has only worsened following Friday’s ruling; Mr Thomas faces calls for his removal or resignation over the activities of his wife, a participant in the potentially illegal effort to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 election, as well as his own refusal to recuse himself from cases involving White House records which may include evidence of his wife’s contacts with Trump administration officials.

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