The frightening implications of Justice Thomas’ press freedom dissent

The Supreme Court announced Monday it will not hear a case that challenges the landmark press freedom ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan of 1964. The current precedent remains — guarding media from superfluous defamation suits filed by public officials and public figures.

For now.

The appeal in question involved Coral Ridge Ministries Media and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Coral Ridge, a Christian nonprofit group, sued the SPLC for listing them as a “hate group” due to their opposition to LGBTQ+ rights. In 2017, Coral Ridge claimed defamation because the categorization disqualified the nonprofit from participating in the AmazonSmile donations program. The suit challenged the standards set in NYT v. Sullivandecision nearly 60 years ago.

When the court announced it would not hear the appeal, Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter. Thomas suggested that it was time for the court to reconsider the “actual malice” standard which makes it difficult for public figures and officials to sue media organizations in defamation cases. It’s a standard that has been underscored in several recent high-profile federal court cases, including the recently settled libel case involving Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, against the New York Times. 

The Supreme Court’s decision to turn away the Coral Ridge appeal brought me a moment of relief. But I also recognize that my relief is temporary. 

Thomas’ dissent should not be overlooked. His words signal a direct assault on the public’s need to know the activities of their legislatures, courts and other public servants. When we eliminate the safeguards that allow the media to seek and report the truth, we infringe upon the public’s right to know the truth. 

It’s a violation of our constitutionally protected right to free press. It is a continuation of a growing movement to impede the essential work of journalists. 

So, today, I feel relieved about the court’s decision. 

Yet, I’m preparing for decisions that are currently happening across the nation and could continue coming. Those decisions in courts and legislatures have the same damaging implications on press freedom, whether it’s through public records or the right to record police. We cannot overlook these decisions — no matter how incremental or inconsequential they seem. 

Press freedom and the public’s need to know depend on it.

Dan Shelley is president and chief executive officer at the Radio Television Digital News Association, the nation’s largest association dedicated to broadcast and digital journalists.

Tags Clarence Thomas first amendment Freedom of Press Journalism press Sarah Palin SCOTUS Supreme Court

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