Dig Baton Rouge

Fifty Years of Free Speech

By Cody Worsham

Bobby Jindal is a pompous blowhard, and Barack Obama is a delusional imbecile.

I actually believe one of those statements, though I won’t admit which here. But, Mr. Governor and Mr. President, if either of you don’t appreciate my rhetorical criticism, sue me.

Oh, wait. You can’t.

That’s thanks, in large part, to the ruling of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which turns 50 on March 9. In that case, the court ruled in favor of the newspaper, which had published an advertisement critical of police action against protesters during a segregation rally at Alabama State College in 1960.

Although he was not mentioned by name in the ad’s text, which included several false accusations, L.B. Sullivan – then the Montgomery, Ala. city commissioner and supervisor of the city police – filed a libel action suit against the Times and four of the individuals responsible for the ad. The Circuit Court of Montgomery County awarded him all the damages he claimed, which amounted to $500,000, and the Supreme Court of Alabama affirmed.

The United States Supreme Court did not.

Chief Justice Earl Warren and his eight associates unanimously sided with the newspaper in a landmark First Amendment case that is critical to the efficacy of the Fourth Estate. Their decision established for the press the standard of “actual malice,” which means, in simple terms, knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth, making it that much more difficult for public officials to win in libel and defamation cases.

On that day 50 years ago, “the free press became much more free,” as First Amendment Center president Ken Paulsen so eloquently stated.

This week, LSU will celebrate that landmark case as part of the 2014 John Breaux Symposium. On March 5 and 6, media, law and government experts will gather at the LSU Law Center and Journalism building to discuss the impact of Times v. Sullivan.

Among those in attendance will be former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and former New York Times general counsel James Goodale. Panelists that will include LSU Paul M. Hebert Law Center Chancellor Jack Weiss; law and ethics scholar Jane Kirtley, who directs the Silha Center for the Study of Law and Ethics at the University of Minnesota; media and politics scholar Regina Lawrence from the University of Texas; Jerry Ceppos, Manship School dean and former vice president of news at Knight Ridder; LSU Law’s Pike Hall Distinguished Professor Paul Finkelman; and Amy Reynolds, media law scholar and Reilly Center director.

“This is an exciting collaboration between the Law Center and our friends at the Manship School of Mass Communication,” said LSU Law Center Chancellor Jack Weiss, a First-Amendment authority. “The Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in Sullivan was intended to have a powerful liberating effect on the news coverage of public affairs and public officials. Has it? Will it continue to do so? At what cost to other important values? The Breaux Symposium will provide a unique opportunity for lawyers and journalists to discuss these questions together.”

If you’ve made it this far into this column, you, no doubt, have an appreciation for just how critical discussion of the First Amendment continues to be today. A half-century after Times v. Sullivan, there are still major concerns regarding our right to free speech, exemplified in 2013 by the trials of NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has become the face of the debate between security and liberty.

Snowden’s case concerns numerous other Constitutional rights and will play out in its own time, but the criticisms he levied and millions more he inspired stand safely on solid legal grounds, thanks to the decision LSU will celebrate this week.

Fifty years later, the state remains subject to criticism free of actual malice, and this writer’s bank account remains safe from libel litigation.

Take that, blowhards.

 

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