In today’s political climate, there are sharp divisions of opinion over a range of issues, from health care and climate change to education and labor law. Ideally, a civil debate undertaken with mutual respect could ease tension and advance knowledge. Politics, however, often takes a very different turn.
One of the landmark decisions of the United States Supreme Court, New York Times v. Sullivan, was decided in 1964 at the height of civil rights movement. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan insisted that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech rested on “a 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.” He then concluded that the First Amendment offered extensive protection to the media from defamation suits brought by private individuals—a principle that was later extended to apply to public figures as well. Defamation suits in his view could chill public debate.More