Skip to main content

Originally published April 18, 2014 at 5:48 PM | Page modified April 18, 2014 at 6:11 PM

  • Share:
  • Comments (0)
  • Print

Scalia criticizes historic Supreme Court ruling on freedom of the press

Justice Antonin Scalia says he thinks the Supreme Court erred in its landmark freedom-of-the press New York Times v. Sullivan ruling.

Tribune Washington Bureau

Reader Comments
Hide / Show comments
The damage to the Constitution specifically attributable to Scalia's rulings is simply staggering. How dare he speak of... MORE
There is a continuing war on the US Constitution by the Right Wing in this country. Freedom of Speech and Freedom of... MORE
I think that the Supreme Court erred in it landmark freedom-of-speech Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission... MORE


WASHINGTON — This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, its most important pronouncement on the freedom of the press, but the ruling has not won the acceptance of Justice Antonin Scalia.

“It was wrong,” he said Thursday evening at the National Press Club in a joint appearance with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “I think the Framers would have been appalled. ... It was revising the Constitution.”

The 9-0 ruling handed down in March 1964 threw out a libel suit brought by police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan from Montgomery, Ala. He claimed he had been defamed by a paid ad in The New York Times, even though it did not mention him by name. The ad, signed by prominent Americans, including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, sought donations to support the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle for civil rights in the South.

The Alabama courts decided the ad’s statements about black students being met with “violence and intimidation” could reflect on Sullivan, and he was awarded the $500,000 he asked for.

In reversing the judgment, the high court said for the first time that the First Amendment’s protection for the freedom of the press puts limits on libel suits filed against the media by public officials. To win such a claim, an official must show that a factual statement was both false and was published with “actual malice” or “reckless disregard” for the truth.

While the court in recent decades has not seriously reconsidered the Times v. Sullivan decision, Scalia has repeatedly said he thinks it was wrong. He has contended that because libel suits had always been a matter of state law, they were not limited by the U.S. Constitution.

Ginsburg, who was there to discuss the First Amendment with veteran broadcaster Marvin Kalb, disagreed with Scalia. The two are close friends, but they both noted they regularly disagree on the law.

She called the Times v. Sullivan ruling a landmark during the civil-rights era because it allowed the national media to freely report on the civil-rights struggle across the South. The decision “is now well accepted,” she said. “I think the Founding Fathers would have agreed with it in the 1960s,” she said.

Four weeks for 99 cents of unlimited digital access to The Seattle Times. Try it now!

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►