Justice Thomas Joins Trump in Criticizing Libel Standards

He calls for reconsidering landmark case involving public figures
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 19, 2019 12:46 PM CST
Like Trump, Thomas Calls for Rethinking Libel Rules
Justice Clarence Thomas criticized the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan ruling on libel.   (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

President Trump's calls to change libel laws that make it difficult to sue journalists—or comedians—may have found a sympathetic ear on the Supreme Court. Justice Clarence Thomas on Tuesday urged a new look at the landmark case, the New York Times v. Sullivan, that requires public figures to show actual malice and reckless disregard for the truth to claim defamation, the Washington Post reports. Thomas made the comments as the court declined to take up a lawsuit by Kathrine McKee against comedian Bill Cosby, who she said raped her decades ago. Her suit said that a letter released by Cosby’s attorney damaged her reputation, but an appeals court ruled that McKee's allegations had made her a public figure in the national national #MeToo movement, so she'd have to be held to the higher standard.

"Since he was on the campaign trail, President Trump has complained about libel laws in the United States, and has argued that they should be rewritten," said Steve Vladeck, a CNN analyst and law professor. He said Thomas' statement "is a roadmap to exactly that result." Trump's targets have included comedians; last weekend, he complained about Saturday Night Live, tweeting, "Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution?" Change by the Supreme Court isn't imminent; no other justices joined Thomas' call to take up the landmark case. His criticism was harsh: Thomas said the landmark 1964 case and the decisions extending it were "policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law." He did agree with the rest of the court to not take up McKee's case. (Alec Baldwin didn't like Trump's SNL criticism.)

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