Reports: Clarence Thomas Interested In Revisiting Ruling To Make It Easier To Sue The Media

clarence thomas times v sullivan
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) No Author 4/25/13

If Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gets his way, the left may get yet another reason to hate him. On Monday, in a dissent Thomas broached the topic of suing news outlets when the Supreme Court refused to hear a case in which the Southern Poverty Law Center placed a Christian nonprofit group on a list designating them a hate group.

The 1964 ruling in Times v. Sullivan has made it fairly difficult to sue media outlets for defamation and win.

In today’s era, the Sullivan case has gotten more interest.

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Most Recent Case

In 2017, Coral Ridge Ministries applied to be part of an Amazon program called AmazonSmile, an affiliate program that helps users donate to charities.

Coral Ridge Ministries’ application was denied. They discovered the reason they were denied entry into the program was because the Southern Poverty Law Center had designated them “an anti-LGBT hate group, based upon the group’s biblical views on homosexuality and marriage.”

In other words, they are just a Christian group, with Christian beliefs.

Coral Ridge Ministries sued the SPLC in an Alabama court for defamation. The SLPC relied on the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan ruling, making it hard for Coral Ridge Ministries to prove that the SLPC acted with “actual malice,” a requirement that must be met for the defamation lawsuit to go forward.

That “actual malice” standard is something Thomas has mentioned more than once.

The 1964 ruling states that when false statements are made about a public figure, not only must the statement be proven false, but the subject of the statement must show that the statement was known to be false and was made with reckless disregard.

The standard has made it extremely difficult to sue. 

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Different Media Environment

Justice Thomas made a statement about his interest in looking at the 1964 ruling again, and seemed to make a thinly veiled reference to today’s radically different media environment, which Thomas himself has been a victim of. 

In his dissent from the Court’s decision not to hear the Coral Ridge Ministries case, Thomas wrote,

“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. SPLC’s ‘hate group’ designation lumped Coral Ridge’s Christian ministry with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis. 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.”

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Making It Easier To Hold The Media To Account

The two most recent events that should make revisiting the Times v. Sullivan case a no-brainer would be the cases of Nick Sandmann and Kyle Rittenhouse. In 2019, Sandmann was with classmates from his Catholic high school at the March For Life in Washington, D.C.  

He was confronted by a Native-American man named Nathan Phillips. As the two stood eye to eye, Sandmann did nothing but smile at Phillips. The footage went viral, and Sandmann was immediately dubbed the aggressor and a white supremacist. Sandmann went on to file lawsuits against several outlets, including CNN and the Washington Post.

Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with killing two people during the 2020 riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin after the death of Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse claimed to have acted in self defense and was subsequently found not guilty. Kyle Rittenhouse was immediately vilified by the media as well, being called a white supremacist and a domestic terrorist. 

Thomas has spoken about looking at the Times v. Sullivan ruling before. In a dissent stemming from the Court’s refusal to hear another such case in 2021, Thomas wrote,

“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. Our reconsideration is all the more needed because of the doctrine’s real-world effects. Public figure or private, lies impose real harm.”

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