“Today one of the reasons I think we don’t have as many libel cases is not just because the Sullivan rule is so widely accepted by everyone, but in a digital world there’s so much greater opportunity for response,” said Bruce W. Sanford, a Washington-based First Amendment lawyer.
If one person says something untrue online, the person being spoken about has many more avenues to reply, agreed David Ardia, a University of North Carolina law professor and the co-director of the school’s Center for Media Law and Policy. In the 1960s, the only way to respond to libel and “reach an audience was to get into the same newspaper, and that’s no longer the case,” he said, adding that the “megaphone” of the Internet is available to everyone. (…)
Sullivan ultimately lost at the Supreme Court. Justice William Brennan, writing for a unanimous court, acknowledged that published errors can harm a person’s reputation. But Brennan, himself ambivalent about reporters even as he emerged as a defender of press freedoms, and his colleagues also decided that it should be tough for public officials to win libel suits.
False statements are an inevitable part of the free debate that is fundamental to the American system of government and must be protected, Brennan wrote.
The only way to win: Show that the false statement was made knowingly or with “reckless disregard for the truth.” The decision freed news organizations to write about the civil rights movement without fearing lawsuits.