Libel in an Era of Fake News

In chapter 4 of his book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate, Anthony Lewis outlines the evolution of Libel law. He identifies the supreme court case, New York Times v. Sullivan as a turning point in the United States, claiming that it put an end to the concept of seditious libel and was extremely significant in protecting the rights of the press in covering controversial issues without fear of legal consequence. This case was especially significant in the coverage of the civil rights movement. 

The case was based on an ad published in 1960 by the New York Times that criticised southern officials and their tactics against the civil rights movement. L.B. Sullivan, a commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama, felt personally targeted by the ad, noting that it negatively reflected on him as the person in charge of the Montgomery police. Sullivan sued the Times for libel on the basis of a few factual inaccuracies within the ad and won $500,000 under Alabama’s libel law. However, this posed the question of whether or not these types of laws would ultimately discourage the press from covering such an important political movement and be deemed unconstitutional. In the end, the New York Times brought this case to the supreme court, and won, setting a new precedent for proving libel and criticism of public figures by the press. 

Reading about seditious libel and government’s influence on the press, I can’t help but draw the comparison to modern day “fake news.” Although fake news isn’t as well defined as seditious libel, it’s a term that sprung from conflict between the press and political public figures. Lewis talks about how the changes that came with New York Times v. Sullivan encouraged the press to,“challenge official truth instead of acting as a mere stenographer,” implying that journalism isn’t just a re-telling of events but something that suggests an opinion or action. 

Today, President Trump, consistently accuses the New York Times and other legitimate news sources of reporting “fake news” when something he says or does is criticized. While he’s not suing the press for libel, the sentiment of what he’s doing is comparable to Sullivan in the 60s. Donald Trump’s words have leverage and while they don’t threaten legal action against the press, they still have the power to discredit those sources. In my opinion, that’s still a form of censorship.

The New York Times v. Sullivan decision didn’t explicitly account for the type of bias we see in today’s news, just like the framers of the First Amendment never could have anticipated the internet as a platform for news and public debate. Every breaking news story has hundreds of versions of the truth published simultaneously, which makes it hard to determine which news is true and which news is fake. But regardless of how complicated our free press has become, as consumers of media, it’s important for us to remember this case and what it said about the role of the press. 

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