With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Why NYT v. Sullivan Matters More than Ever

Artwork for New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) FREE SPEECH OUT LOUDNew York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) 30 00:00:00 / 00:59:09 30 Subscribe to This ShowDownload This EpisodeEmbed This PlayerShare This Episode

They say there’s no such thing as bad press, but it’s unlikely you’ll find too many politicians and public figures who can wholeheartedly agree. Their relationship with journalism and commentary — especially if it’s critical of them — has always been a contentious one. 

And that’s a good thing.

If you’re a public figure or politician, there’s probably nothing you’d want more than to stop your critics from printing commentary you find unfair or damaging to your reputation. If you could sue for defamation, hit them in their wallets, and have that make other people think twice before coming after you, you’d probably sleep much easier at night.

The First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and a free press limit those lawsuits — and for good reason. Using your political and financial power to bully critics into silence would make investigative journalism even more difficult, chilling critical reporting and severely hobbling our discourse and our democracy.

That’s what the Supreme Court decided in its landmark 1964 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan decision, which has deterred the powerful from using defamation lawsuits to intimidate and silence for more than 60 years, ruling that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

It should be no surprise, then, that Sullivan has been a target in recent years.

There have been numerous bids for the Supreme Court to overrule the Sullivan decision, and Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have both expressed a willingness to revisit it. Politicians from former President Donald Trump to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have publicly attacked the Sullivan decision and its underlying arguments, and Florida state legislator Alex Andrade filed a bill in February 2023 designed to effectively overturn it.

Critics believe Sullivan gives the media unfettered license to publish defamatory coverage, leaving its victims with no recourse to respond. Many also believe overturning the decision would give regular people teeth to bite back against what they view as the media’s abuse of power.

But would reversing this 1964 Supreme Court precedent really protect the little guy and balance the scales?

Not at all. In fact, Sullivan has historically given countless Davids a fighting chance against a long line of Goliaths. Reversing the decision would be like taking away David’s sling and stones.

In this FIRE explainer, I’ll break down the details of the Sullivan decision, address current criticisms, and outline why reversing it would be disastrous for free expression, a free press, and the little guy.

Read entire article at FIRE