Our founding fathers may not have guaranteed the right to free speech in the first draft of the U.S. Constitution, but it did make it into the very first amendment to the document. A series of Supreme Court rulings during the Civil Rights movement extended the right to free speech, but now at least two Supreme Court Justices want to reverse that decision.
At the height of the Civil Rights movement, The New York Times published an advertisement that criticized terrorism against protestors in the Civil Rights movement in the South. L.B. Sullivan, the police commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama at the time, sued the newspaper, claiming the ad falsely accused him of misconduct. Sullivan was not even named in the ad, but a jury in Alabama ruled in his favor and awarded him $500,000 in damages.
The case made its way up to the Supreme Court, which reversed the decision. The Court based its ruling on the fact that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits public officials from recovering damages for defamation regarding their official conduct. The only exception to that rule is if the plaintiff can prove the allegedly defamatory statement was made with “actual malice”, meaning the defendant knew the statement was false at the time they made it, and they made it anyway with the intention of inflicting some sort of harm (financial or otherwise) on the plaintiff.
The Court concluded by saying the ruling was in the spirit of the First Amendment, which was designed to encourage free and open debate on public issues, even when it means leaving public figures to get attacked in the press. While the First Amendment initially applied only to public officials (those holding elected government positions), later Supreme Court rulings extended the protection to any speech about any public figure, including entertainers and other celebrities. Continue reading ›