Opinion | What Protects Fox News Also Protects Our Democracy

Fox News, which is defending itself from Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion lawsuit, is going to trial on Monday in a hole. In an unusual move, the judge has already ruled that on-air statements — those asserting that Dominion’s voting machines played a role in causing Donald Trump to lose the 2020 election — were false. The main task left for the jury is to decide whether Fox made those false statements with what’s known as actual malice.

It’s remarkable that Dominion’s suit has gotten this far and may even ultimately prevail, thanks in part to a raft of incredibly damaging Fox emails, text messages and other evidence that show deep internal misgivings about on-air claims about the 2020 election. But proving actual malice is difficult: Dominion must show that Fox News either knew that its reporting was false or entertained serious doubts about the truth of the reporting. This high bar, set by the Supreme Court in 1964, often is insurmountable for plaintiffs.

Given the evidence against Fox that already has been made public, it might seem unfair that Dominion continues to face such an uphill battle in this case. But it is a very good thing for our democracy that it is so difficult to prove actual malice.

A movement to erode this legal protection has gained steam in recent years, but the main push has not come from Fox critics. Rather, conservatives have characterized the protections as unfairly enabling liberal news outlets to lie. Commentators, politicians, judges and two Supreme Court justices have urged the court to reconsider these protections.

The Dominion case demonstrates why this politicization is the wrong course. Overturning nearly six decades of vital First Amendment precedent would not benefit conservatives, liberals or anyone other than those who seek to stifle reporting and criticism with the threat of litigation.

Sixty-three years ago, this newspaper ran a full-page advertisement from a civil rights committee that accused Southern officials of mistreating Martin Luther King Jr. and other peaceful protesters. Some statements were untrue. For instance, although the city of Montgomery, Ala., had deployed the police near a local college, the officers did not “ring” the campus, as the ad alleged. L.B. Sullivan, a Montgomery city commissioner who supervised the police, sued The New York Times for defamation, and the all-white jury found against The Times and four Black ministers whose names were on the advertisement and awarded Sullivan $500,000.

The Supreme Court in 1964 unanimously overturned that ruling, reasoning that public officials must establish actual malice before recovering defamation damages. Justice William Brennan touted the “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” The court later expanded this requirement to public-figure defamation plaintiffs.

The merits of New York Times v. Sullivan have long been the subject of academic debate, but its survival was not seriously questioned until 2019, when Justice Clarence Thomas called on the court to revisit the decision. He deemed Sullivan and its progeny “policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law.” Two years later, Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Justice Thomas, arguing that the actual malice rule might enable the spread of falsehoods online and on cable news.

As the Supreme Court showed last year when it overturned Roe v. Wade, no precedent is entirely safe from reversal, so any supporters of Sullivan should be quite concerned by two justices calling to revisit the case.

Sullivan is increasingly under attack. This month, for instance, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Florida took a swipe at the actual malice standard when applying it to rule in favor of CNN in a defamation lawsuit that the lawyer Alan Dershowitz brought against the network. “Policy-based decisions” such as the actual malice rule are best left to elected legislatures, “not to an unelected judge who may be king or queen for a day (or a lifetime),” Judge Raag Singhal wrote. Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit cited the media’s “bias against the Republican Party” in his 2021 call to overturn Sullivan. And at a February round table about the news media, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said the precedent enables the media to “smear” politicians.

The actual malice rule protects speakers regardless of politics. It protects CNN and The New York Times. It protects Fox News and Newsmax. The rule gives them the flexibility to investigate, report on and criticize the most powerful people and companies without fearing ruinous liability because of an accidental error. It also protects individual speakers on social media.

The precedent does not provide media outlets and other speakers with a blank check to knowingly lie. Actual malice is a high bar, but it is not insurmountable. Dominion has already produced emails and other evidence that Fox employees and executives privately entertained serious doubts about many claims about the election. The jury could well conclude that Fox knew of the statements’ falsity or were sufficiently aware of their probable falsity. But Sullivan gives Fox the opportunity to present this defense rather than automatically becoming liable for every error.

Judges who argue that the actual malice rule may not be rooted in the First Amendment gloss over the threat to speech posed by using the power of the government — court judgments — to punish speech.

Attacks on Sullivan are attacks on the building blocks of democracy, and they should concern everyone who cares about free speech, regardless of political affiliation. We have seen how the powerful have weaponized weaker defamation laws in other countries. In a December report, UNESCO noted that there has been a global increase in civil defamation lawsuits that often aim “to target journalists who publish content that makes public officials or powerful economic actors uncomfortable.” A 2020 report from the Foreign Policy Center observed that since a right-wing populist party rose to power in Poland in 2015, a Polish daily newspaper had received more than 55 legal threats from “powerful state actors,” state-owned companies and people tied to the ruling party.

Fearing such an outcome, Matthew Schafer, a First Amendment lawyer (who represented The Times a number of years ago), and I came up with a backup plan: In a recent law review article, we proposed a federal statute that would codify the actual malice rule and other vital free speech and press protections. While courts and state legislatures would be free to impose even stronger protections, our proposal would prevent a sudden erosion of free speech because of a single Supreme Court opinion.

Hopefully, such a plan will be unnecessary and judges will come to again recognize the enduring value of Sullivan. The Dominion trial is an opportunity for the nation to witness how this “profound national commitment” protects all speakers. And it will be in the best interests of conservatives to fight to protect Sullivan rather than to tear it down.

Jeff Kosseff is a senior legal fellow at The Future of Free Speech Project and the author of the forthcoming book “Liar in a Crowded Theater: Freedom of Speech in a World of Misinformation.”

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