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Libel or Responsible Journalism?

Defamation and the Free Press



  • Defamation is a broad term that encompasses false statements spoken, written, or in pictures or other physical forms that is harmful to a person’s reputation, professional career or makes them vulnerable to public scrutiny. [Legal Information Institute]

  • Libel is a form of defamation that only occurs in writing. [Legal Information Institute]

  • Slander is another form of defamation and only refers to spoken defamation. [Merriam-Webster]


  • Libel laws are meant to compensate someone hurt by libel, not to punish someone who committed libel. [Freedom Forum Institute]

  • Opinions are not libel or slander. [Freedom Forum Institute]

  • Legal precedent calls for public officials to provide proof of "actual malice" for defamation to be prosecuted. [The Washington Post]

  • "Actual malice" = the individual or organization making the claim knew it was false or had "reckless disregard for the truth." [Oyez]

  • This is considered a "high bar to prove." [Axios]



CIVICS: The First Amendment broadly protects publishers and individuals through free speech and freedom of the press. A long history of legal precedent has shaped the way libel is understood.

Supreme Court has ruled:

SOCIAL: Libel and the media can be tricky, as American values call for the protection of the free press but also protect citizens through due justice. President Trump has argued that the laws are unfair, specifically that proving malice is too difficult. Should the precedent be changed?



Often times, the goal of a libel lawsuit from a "public figure" is to stifle critics and end investigative journalism.


Supporters argue the precedent protects publishers and journalists from an overwhelming amount of potentially frivolous lawsuits. [Freedom Forum Institute]



Protect the Press

Freedom of the press is the right to report news or circulate opinions without censorship from the government. [HISTORY]


Some media experts said changing the ruling of the New York Times v. Sullivan case would limit some degree the freedom of the press. [The Washington Post]



Free Press is critical

A free press is protected by the First Amendment and is considered “one of the great bulwarks of liberty” by the Founding Fathers. [HISTORY]


Having a free press is critical for a democracy to function. It is a critical "watchdog" over the government and those in power.  Without it, the public may be unable to determine the truth from government propaganda. [American Civil Liberties Union]



Justice Clarance Thomas believes the Supreme Court should overturn the 55-year precedent. [The Associated Press]


Justice Thomas wrote in an opinion that the proof of malice precedent lacked a constitutional footing and was a “policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law.” [American Bar Association Journal]



Public figures

A public figure is defined as, "public officials or any other person pervasively involved in public affairs, like celebrities, business leaders, and politicians." [Freedom Forum Insitute]


President Trump is considered a public figure and said that newspapers are "totally protected" with "no chance of winning." [Politico]



It shouldn't be so hard

Proving malicious intent is a high bar. Meaning, it is hard to prove. [The New York Times]


President Trump has repeatedly advocated for libel laws to be "cracked open" to make it easier for public figures to win cases. [Reuters


  • Jan. 2018: President Trump called libel laws a "sham" and promised to "take a strong look" at the laws. [NPR]

  • Feb. 2019: Supreme Court Justice Thomas believes the precedent of "actual malice" lacks constitutional support. He said the court’s decision was “policy-driven” and should be reexamined. [The Washington Post]
  • Feb. 26, 2020: The Trump campaign sued The New York Times for a 2019 opinion article, claiming the company knew the article would mislead its readers. [Axios

  • Mar. 4, 2020: The Trump campaign sued The Washington Post in a similar libel lawsuit. [NPR]


  • How frequently do Supreme Court Justices comment on the 1964 case? [Associated Press]

  • Is the libel case against The New York Times opinion article fair? 

  • Review the ruling in the New York Times Company v. Sullivan case here.

Key Vocabulary