Court Battles

Clarence Thomas signals interest in making it easier to sue media

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday expressed a desire to revisit a landmark 1964 ruling that makes it relatively difficult to bring successful lawsuits against media outlets for defamation.

Thomas’s statement came in response to the court’s decision to turn away an appeal from a Christian nonprofit group who disputed their characterization by the civil rights watchdog group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Coral Ridge Ministries Media sued the SPLC for defamation for listing them as a hate group on their public database, which led to Amazon excluding Coral Ridge as a recipient of charitable contributions from online shoppers.

Thomas dissented from the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the lawsuit, which had been dismissed by lower courts for failing to overcome the decades-old legal standard, established in the landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision, that public figures who sue for defamation must not only prove defendants made defamatory statements, but that those statements were made with “actual malice.”

“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,’” Thomas wrote.

“SPLC’s ‘hate group’ designation lumped Coral Ridge’s Christian ministry with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis,” the justice added. “It placed Coral Ridge on an interactive, online ‘Hate Map’ and caused Coral Ridge concrete financial injury by excluding it from the AmazonSmile donation program. Nonetheless, unable to satisfy the ‘almost impossible’ actual-malice standard this Court has imposed, Coral Ridge could not hold SPLC to account for what it maintains is a blatant falsehood.”

It’s not the first time Thomas has called for revisiting the actual malice standard, which many journalists and free speech advocates see as a fundamental protection for reporting on public figures.

Last year, he dissented in another instance where the Supreme Court declined to take up a defamation case that had been stymied by the 1964 precedent.

“The lack of historical support for this Court’s actual-malice requirement is reason enough to take a second look at the Court’s doctrine,” Thomas wrote in his 2021 opinion. “Our reconsideration is all the more needed because of the doctrine’s real-world effects. Public figure or private, lies impose real harm.”

It’s unclear how much traction his argument is getting among the other five conservative justices. While none of his colleagues joined Thomas in dissenting on Monday, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote an opinion last year concurring with his call to revisit the New York Times v. Sullivan decision.

Updated at 10:26 a.m.

Tags Clarence Thomas Clarence Thomas Neil Gorsuch Southern Poverty Law Center Supreme Court

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