MSU Professor Kevin Qualls on New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan

Mar 14, 2019

In 1964, New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan declared news publications protected from accusations of defamation by elected officials on the grounds of the First Amendment. Today, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas looks to overturn that historic ruling. Murray State professor, Kevin Qualls, Ph.D., visits Sounds Good to discuss the justice's controversial goal. 

From Cornell Law School, "defamation is a statement that injures a third party's reputation. The tort of defamation includes both libel (written statements) and slander (spoken statements)." In order to establish a sufficient defamation lawsuit, the plaintiff must show five things: 1.) the plaintiff was specifically identified, 2.) the defamatory remarks were published, 3.) the remark itself was slanderous or untrue, 4.) the plaintiff was negatively affected by the remarks, and 5.) the defendant is responsible for publication. 

In 1960, civil rights leaders ran a full-page ad in the New York Times to raise funds for the civil rights movement. In the ad, an "unprecendented wave of terror" by the police was described, including some falsehoods. L.B. Sullivan, one of three individuals in charge of the Montgomery police at the time, attempted to sue the New York Times for defamation. Although the ad did not mention Sullivan specifically, he claimed that the ad implied responsibility due to his position in the force. In Alabama court, Sullivan won his case and the New York Times was ordered to pay $500,000 in damage. 

After an appeal was made to the United States Supreme Court by the New York Times, the court came to the unanimous decision that in order to prove libel, a public official must show that the publication acted with actual malice. The Court asserted America's "profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." 55 years later, current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wishes to overturn the 1964 ruling. 

According to the New York Times, Thomas said "the [1964] decision had no basis in the Constitution as it was understood by the people who drafted and ratified it." Kevin Qualls, Murray State professor of television production, disagrees. Qualls references pre-revolution America, in which publicly speaking against the King of England was considered illegal. The founding fathers, Qualls argues, wrote the First Amendment with those restrictions in mind. The original intent of the Constitution, therefore, would have been in line with the NYT v. Sullivan ruling. 

The overruling of New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan would restrict the freedom of the press on all forms of news publications (print or digital), including published comments or posts on social media and blog sites. While other areas of the world are not strangers to governmental restriction of public opinions, it's been hundreds of years since those limitations were an American reality. "This [case] is a part of the history in this country that we take for granted," says Quall.