Justice Thomas Wants to Make It Easier for People to Sue Media Outlets for Libel

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote on Monday that he believes the Supreme Court should revisit a decades-old precedent on libel laws, signaling his willingness to overturn yet more landmark cases and potentially open up media outlets to attacks.

On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear Coral Ridge Ministries Media v. Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in which the Christian advocacy group sued for defamation over its designation as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the SPLC. As a result, Coral Ridge was excluded from a donation program run by Amazon. The group first sued the SPLC in 2017 and the case has been dismissed by two lower courts.

The case challenged a precedent established in 1964 via The New York Times v. Sullivan, stating that a public figure must prove “actual malice” in libel charges they’re waging against another party. It protects a wide range of media outlets from lawsuits and is hailed by legal experts as vital to protecting free speech and freedom of the press.

Thomas dissented from the Court’s opinion, arguing that Coral Ridge’s case has merit. “Coral Ridge maintained that although it ‘opposes homosexual conduct’ based on its religious beliefs, it is in no sense a ‘hate group,’” he wrote, reiterating the group’s argument.

“This case is one of many showing how New York Times and its progeny have allowed media organizations and interest groups ‘to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity,’” he continued. “SPLC’s ‘hate group’ designation lumped Coral Ridge’s Christian ministry with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis.”

Thomas has called for overturning the “actual malice” standard before. In 2019 and 2021, he wrote opinions in other defamation cases brought before the Court. At least one other justice agrees that the Supreme Court should reconsider NYT v. Sullivan; Neil Gorsuch has also called for the Court to reconsider the precedent.

“Large numbers of newspapers and periodicals have failed,” Gorsuch wrote in 2021, dissenting to the Court’s decision not to take up a libel case in which a former prime minister of Albania’s son alleged that a book falsely connected him to an arms deal. “Network news has lost most of its viewers. With their fall has come the rise of 24-hour cable news and online media platforms that ‘monetize anything that garners clicks.’”

The right has pushed for a weakening of constitutional protections for media outlets and figures for years; during his first years in office, former President Donald Trump took issue with a book, written by reporter Bob Woodward, that painted a less-than-flattering picture of the president. In a tweet in 2017, he said that it was a “shame” that “someone can write an article or book, totally make up stories and form a picture of a person that is literally the exact opposite of the fact, and get away with it without retribution or cost.”

Then, in 2020, the Trump campaign filed a lawsuit claiming that the New York Times had defamed him in an op-ed connecting the Trump campaign with Russian officials who the op-ed said worked to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. The case was ultimately dismissed.

Legal experts have raised concern about right-wing justices’ willingness to overturn NYT v. Sullivan. The past few years have seen an increase in political figures and corporate interests bringing libel lawsuits against their opponents, perhaps as attempts to silence them, as experts on media law George Freeman and Lee Levine wrote in The Washington Post in March.

“In our experience, these cases are not typically intended to secure compensation for actual injury to reputation,” they wrote. “Instead, they are intended to punish the media for speaking truth to power and to dissuade it from doing so in the future. And many of these cases are funded not by the allegedly aggrieved plaintiff, but by wealthy individuals and institutions with ideological or political axes to grind and scores to settle.”