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Public figure libel standard questioned by Supreme Court Justice

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' view on American law relevant to written defamation (libel) is not widely shared on the nation's highest court. That didn't stop him from stating it in a recent case, though, in which he expressed strong opposition to a judicial standard set forth in a seminal 1964 SCOTUS decision.

That ruling came in New York Times v. Sullivan, with the court unanimously holding that public figures seeking to establish libel claims must satisfy a comparatively higher proof standard than is otherwise the case. The court's reasoning was based on a balancing premise pitting the public's right to know about important matters against an individual's ability to stifle discourse and seek damages by invoking libel protections.

The court held that a public person seeking to prevail in a libel claim must establish more than that printed material was simply false. He or she must prove that a writer acted with "actual malice" or "reckless disregard" for truth and that it caused reputational harm.

Although Sullivan has stood firm for more than half a century, Thomas questions its validity, calling it a "policy-driven decision masquerading as constitutional law." He deems it legal overreaching and asserts that defamation claims can be adequately handled at the state level.

Moreover, he cites a lack of historical support allowing for any link between the Constitution and an elevated actual-malice proof threshold for public figures. In Thomas' view, all individuals with defamation claims should be treated similarly by American courts.

Questions or concerns regarding reputational harm (slander, libel or similar offenses) can be addressed to attorneys with a demonstrated record of advocacy on behalf of clients with defamation claims.

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