The U.S. Supreme Court declined to reverse the landmark First Amendment decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 ruling that created a higher hurdle for public figures against defamation and was the foundation of US media law.
Judge Clarence Thomas objected to the court’s refusal to take up the case.
“I would grant certiorari in this case to review the ‘actual malice’ standard,” Thomas wrote. “This case is one of many that show how the New York Times and its progeny have enabled media organizations and interest groups” to falsely slander public figures with impunity. “”
He continued, “The SPLC’s ‘hate group’ designation grouped Coral Ridge’s Christian ministry with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. It put Coral Ridge on a ‘hate map.’ online interactive and caused concrete financial harm to Coral Ridge by excluding it from the AmazonSmile donation program. Nevertheless, unable to meet the “almost impossible” actual malice standard imposed by this Court, Coral Ridge could not hold SPLC accountable for what it claims to be a blatant lie.”
Thomas and Judge Neil Gorsuch previously urged judges to review the scope of the ruling – which established the requirement that public figures show “actual malice” before they can prevail in a defamation suit against a newspaper or an individual.
The case in question was brought by a non-profit Christian ministry – Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. – which airs a television broadcast of previously recorded messages from the group’s late founder, Dr. D. James Kennedy.
The group has sought to sue the Southern Poverty Law Center for defamation for calling Coral Ridge a “hate group” – a designation that appears on its website and is used in some of its fundraising materials, publications and training programs. . In court documents, the center said Coral Ridge calls same-sex conduct “lawless,” “abomination” and “disgraceful.”
Coral Ridge lost in the lower courts and later filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking to review the defamation standard.
“This Court’s ‘actual malice’ standard, invented for a particular time and for a particular purpose, has become obsolete and serves none of the interests it was meant to protect by preventing private individuals from bringing libel suits against other corporations or private individuals,” David C. Gibbs III, a Coral Ridge attorney, told the judges. He said the ruling “no longer acts as a bulwark to protect civil rights” but rather as “a sword used to bludgeon public figures with impunity while hiding behind this Court’s misguided view of the First Amendment.” .
Lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center countered that court precedent “belies the notion that actual malice presents an insurmountable hurdle for public figure defamation plaintiffs.”
“The court also recognized that issues surrounding certain religious views on homosexuality are of significant public interest and that free and open debate in this area is essential,” they argued.