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Landmark libel case still relevant in the digital age

WASHINGTON (AP) - Singer Courtney Love hadn't been born and tweeting was reserved for birds when The New York Times won a landmark libel case at the Supreme Court in 1964.

But when a California jury decided recently that Love shouldn't have to pay $8 million over a troublesome tweet about her former lawyer, she became just the latest person to lean on New York Times v. Sullivan, a case decided 50 years ago Sunday, and the cases that followed and expanded it.

The Sullivan case, as it known among lawyers, stemmed from Alabama officials' efforts to hamper the newspaper's coverage of civil rights protests in the South. The decision made it hard for public officials to win lawsuits and hefty money awards over published false statements that damaged their reputations.

In the decades since, the justices have extended the decision, making it tough for celebrities, politicians and other public figures to win libel suits.

Newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations were the primary means of publishing when the Sullivan case was decided. Today, the case applies equally to new media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Because of the ease of publishing online, more people may claim the protections granted by the decision and others that followed.

"It seems reasonably clear that the protections afforded by Sullivan and the cases that came after it apply to both media and nonmedia speakers," said Lee Levine, a First Amendment lawyer who co-wrote a recent book on the case.

"Technology has afforded everyone - and not just people who can afford to buy a printing press or own a broadcast station - the ability to disseminate information to the world. That has increased the opportunities for those people to publish defamatory statements to a very broad audience," Levine said.

Levine said it's unclear whether that opportunity will lead to more libel suits, cases brought over the publication of false information that injures someone's reputation. More ways to communicate could mean more suits, or there could be fewer because people may discount what they read online, and it may not be worth suing individuals who don't have corporations' wealth.

Or there may be other explanations.

"Today one of the reasons I think we don't have as many libel cases is not just because the Sullivan rule is so widely accepted by everyone, but in a digital world there's so much greater opportunity for response," said Bruce W. Sanford, a Washington-based First Amendment lawyer.

If one person says something untrue online, the person being spoken about has many more avenues to reply, agreed David Ardia, a University of North Carolina law professor and the co-director of the school's Center for Media Law and Policy. In the 1960s, the only way to respond to libel and "reach an audience was to get into the same newspaper, and that's no longer the case," he said, adding that the "megaphone" of the Internet is available to everyone.

The Internet was a long way off when the Sullivan case began in 1960. It started when the Times published a civil rights group's full-page ad, with the title "Heed Their Rising Voices," that described the brutal treatment of civil rights demonstrators in the South.

Egged on by a local newspaper editorial urging all Alabamians to sue, a Montgomery, Ala., city official named L.B. Sullivan claimed his reputation had been sullied by the ad's errors, though neither he nor any other official was named in it. Under state law preceding the Supreme Court decision, Sullivan won a judgment of $500,000, and the Times faced millions more in other suits.

The legal peril prompted the Times to pull all its reporters out of Alabama at a time of keen news interest in the civil rights movement.

Sullivan ultimately lost at the Supreme Court. Justice William Brennan, writing for a unanimous court, acknowledged that published errors can harm a person's reputation. But Brennan, himself ambivalent about reporters even as he emerged as a defender of press freedoms, and his colleagues also decided that it should be tough for public officials to win libel suits.

False statements are an inevitable part of the free debate that is fundamental to the American system of government and must be protected, Brennan wrote. The only way to win: Show that the false statement was made knowingly or with "reckless disregard for the truth." The decision freed news organizations to write about the civil rights movement without fearing lawsuits.

The Sullivan decision and others that followed haven't been without criticism, however, including some from three justices now on the Supreme Court.

At her high court confirmation hearing in 2010, Elena Kagan said the principle laid out in the case is vital to free speech, but she noted that it allows for serious harm to a person's reputation without any compensation or remedy.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 1985 memo as a White House lawyer that he favored making it easier for public figures to win in libel cases, while limiting the financial threat to the losing side.

Justice Antonin Scalia has been quoted as saying he would probably vote to reverse the decision if given the chance.

Still, scholars including Robert Sack, a federal judge who specialized in media law while in private practice, say the Sullivan decision has become so much part of the law that it's hard to see it being overturned.

That means anyone finding themselves in singer Love's situation may turn to the decision. In Love's case, the singer tweeted about a former lawyer, writing that the woman had been "bought off" in a suit involving the estate of Love's late husband, musician Kurt Cobain. The lawyer, Rhonda Holmes, sued for $8 million, claiming the tweet was false and had hurt her reputation.

But Holmes ran up against the Sullivan rule. A jury found in January that though Love published a false statement, she didn't know it was false.

Holmes' lawyer, Mitchell Langberg, said he knew it would be a difficult case. Still, he advised Twitter users: "Careful what you tweet."


Associated Press reporter Mark Sherman contributed to this report.


Follow Jessica Gresko on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jessicagresko

Join the discussion

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mbrheljr March 08 2014 at 1:33 PM

NY Times v Sullivan?

Remember it from studying defamation in law school Torts.

If public figure is plaintiff, aka alleged injured party?

Must prove "actual malice" to prevail, i.e., either actual knowledge of disseminated falsehood or a reckless disregard for the truth...

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ENCONPOPPY March 08 2014 at 12:29 PM

This means politicians can tell lies about each other without punative recourse ?

No wonder we citizens have only a vague idea of what is happening to our country !

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1 reply
onemadashell ENCONPOPPY March 08 2014 at 12:58 PM

no we realize it after it is too late.

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Zig March 08 2014 at 12:32 PM

The problem is our "justice" system allows "precedence" to dictate what is just and a judge's rulings to be strength for future unjust rulings. There is so much corruption in our Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branch that this nation has headed down a road where justice is hard to find. It has become all about how smart your attorney is, who he knows, and what judge he/she can get to sit in on the case. There have been cases of jury tampering and to protect itself, the judicial system then just sweeps those isolated cases under the carpet instead of prosecuting the individuals/cases where it would become public knowledge becaue the courts are afraid of being known as fallible, imperfect, and even corrupt. Judges watch each others' backs because they are afraid of retaliation. Until our nation returns to a God-fearing one and prioritizes Judeo-Christian morality, this nation will only get worse.

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4 replies
cqdeed March 08 2014 at 12:35 PM

This case also freed up the news media to be pass off opinions as news without repercussions.

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2 replies
Lucky cqdeed March 08 2014 at 1:09 PM

... yep. Its what keeps the Huffington Post in business.

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1 reply
Dear Old Craze Lucky March 08 2014 at 2:36 PM

Very True! Huffington Post are filthy liars and morons!

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wlh1923 cqdeed March 08 2014 at 1:21 PM

There's a presupposition that people of normal intelligence (ahem, cough) reading the news can understand the difference between fact and opinion and that, further, when people read an opinion they can understand how an opinion can be slanted and how it differs from fact. Different news organizations have different political leanings and that is frequently evident to the reader. If you don't like the political slant or leaning of a particular news outlet you are completely free to ignore it entirely. That is the repercussion for the news outlet.

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mibtm54 March 08 2014 at 9:10 PM

Very well written. It's incredible how a case from that long still has such impact today.

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Kate March 08 2014 at 1:37 PM

I'm not surprised that my three least favorite judges don't like Sullivan. It sounds fair enough to me: if you can prove deliberate libel, you win. If you can't, you don't.

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stees4 March 08 2014 at 4:54 PM

The problem with the logic of this decision by our courts, is that politicians are allowed to distort the truth and not have to answer for that. John Q Public does not get the truth as a result. What John Q Public ends up getting instead, is fabricated truth designed to be favorable only to the interest of the politician at hand. Patrick Moynahan stated that "While you are certainly entitled to your own opinion, you are not entitled to your own facts" The courts in allowing slander to continue in the way that it does only helps politicians become better liars.

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1 reply
freeeeebee stees4 March 08 2014 at 7:03 PM

I know Patrick Moynahan and he's a plumber; I highly doubt he'd say that even on his best day.

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eyesopen108 March 08 2014 at 4:43 PM

Yes the same stool brains who advocate bogus things about identity theft and protecting privacy are the same stool brains who created computers so everyones privacy can be invaded. You cant fix stupid.We are a world of demonic idiot losers who dont think for ourselves and then we whine like little babies when we are exposed.

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1 reply
mary eyesopen108 March 08 2014 at 10:33 PM

Inane comment. Take your own stool brain and get off the Internet if you think so little of it.

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Paul March 08 2014 at 6:06 PM

Don’t have anything snarky to say I’m just jazzed that it’s not a huff puff piece , AOL should be in charge of all their content , instead of letting them regulate what’s said..Face book? I’ll pass...they want your phone number to post?

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1 reply
mary Paul March 08 2014 at 10:31 PM

Aol is unable to provide a discussion board that is not plagued by spammer/scammers' work at home ads. This has only occurred since HP is no longer the major source of AOL articles. They have relapsed into the sorry state of their comments section BEFORE they acquired HP.

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mlgflysafe March 08 2014 at 12:24 PM

It doesn't seem that Courtney Love's comments should have been protected under this Supreme Court Ruling as her comments were made with her "knowing them not to be true with a reckless disregard for the truth." Being a celebrity should not give anyone the power to make false statements against the character and/or reputation of anyone else. Seems like she should still have to pay.

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3 replies
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