Rescuing Our Democracy by Rethinking New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
58 Pages Posted: 8 Jan 2021 Last revised: 15 Jan 2021
Date Written: January 6, 2021
New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) is an iconic decision, foundational to modern First Amendment theory, and in a string of follow-on decisions the Court firmly grounded free speech theory and practice in the need to protect democratic discourse. To do this the Court provided broad and deep protections to the publishers of falsehoods. This article recognizes that New York Times and its progeny made sense in the “public square” of an earlier era, but the justices could never have foreseen the dramatic changes in technology and the media environment in the years since, nor predict that by making defamation cases virtually impossible to win they were harming, rather than helping self-government. In part because of New York Times, the First Amendment has been weaponized, frustrating a basic requirement of a healthy democracy: the development of a set of broadly agreed-upon facts. Instead, we are subject to waves of falsehoods that swamp the ability of citizens to effectively self-govern. As a result, and despite its iconic status, New York Times needs to be reexamined and retooled to better serve our democracy.
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