“First Amendment Scholars Want to See the Media Lose These Cases”

NYT story re-visists NYT v. Sullivan:

The lawyers and First Amendment scholars who have made it their life’s work to defend the well-established but newly threatened constitutional protections for journalists don’t usually root for the media to lose in court.

But that’s what is happening with a series of recent defamation lawsuits against right-wing outlets that legal experts say could be the most significant libel litigation in recent memory….

Libel cases are difficult to prove in the United States. Among other things, public figures have to show that someone has published what the Supreme Court has called a “calculated falsehood” or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

But numerous First Amendment lawyers said they thought the odds were strong that at least one of these outlets would suffer a rare loss at trial, given the extensive and well-documented evidence against them.

That “may well turn out to be a good thing,” said Lee Levine, a veteran First Amendment lawyer who has defended some of the biggest media outlets in the country in libel cases….

Mr. Levine said a finding of liability in the cases making their way through the courts could demonstrate that the bar set by the Sullivan case did what it was supposed to: make it possible to punish the intentional or extremely reckless dissemination of false information while protecting the press from lawsuits over inadvertent errors….

Increasingly, many First Amendment lawyers see the courts as one of the last viable paths to deter the spread of political disinformation and help prevent repeats of dangerous situations — from another Jan. 6-style riot to the more isolated threats against local officials that grew out of Mr. Trump’s false insistence that the election was stolen from him.

“I think we are at a time in U.S. history and world history of losing any ability as a civilization to distinguish between truth and falsity,” said Rodney Smolla, a lawyer representing Dominion Voting Systems, a technology company suing Fox News and several individuals who promoted conspiracy theories about the last election, including Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell.

“And one of the few legal avenues in which civilized countries have attempted to distinguish between truth and falsity is defamation law,” said Mr. Smolla, who believes the Sullivan decision is sound law….

Paul Clement, a lawyer defending Fox in the Smartmatic case, said one of the issues was whether requiring news outlets to treat their subjects in a skeptical way, even if their journalists doubt that someone is being truthful, was consistent with the First Amendment.

If you’re superskeptical, you’re covered, but if you express sympathy, then somehow you’re not?” Mr. Clement said. “To me, that seems fundamentally problematic and antithetical to First Amendment values.”…

Rachel Goodman, counsel for Protect Democracy, said this kind of litigation “makes clear that there are steep costs to recklessly or intentionally spreading fiction for political or personal profit.”

“It reminds them that the speech standards that have governed the marketplace of ideas for decades apply to them, too,” Ms. Goodman added.

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