Making sense of Judge Silberman’s diatribe against libel protections for the press

Judge Laurence Silberman. Painting by Peter Even Egeli.

We are probably a long way from having to worry about the libel protections the press has enjoyed for the past half-century. But Judge Laurence Silberman’s attack on the landmark decision New York Times v. Sullivan is the second by a prominent conservative in two years — the first coming from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Josh Gerstein reported in Politico on Friday that Silberman, a senior judge who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, wrote in a dissent that the “actual malice” standard set forth in the Times decision was a “policy-driven” result with no basis in the First Amendment.

“The holding has no relation to the text, history, or structure of the Constitution, and it baldly constitutionalized an area of law refined over centuries of common law adjudication,” Silberman wrote, praising Thomas’ dissent in a 2019 case in which urged his fellow justices to return libel law to state jurisdiction.

I wrote about Thomas’ dissent for GBH News, so I don’t want to repeat everything here. But the Supreme Court hit upon actual malice as a way to stop the racist white power structure in the South from weaponizing libel law — that is, filing bogus libel cases against the press based on inconsequential errors as a way of intimidating Northern media outlets during the civil-rights era.

Become a member of Media Nation today

Thomas and Silberman both claim there is something perverse about actual malice, but in fact it is a logical evolution of how libel law developed over the centuries. Originally, the only element to libel was defamation. The truth of a published item was not only irrelevant, but it was thought that “the great the truth, the greater the libel,” since truthful defamatory statements can be more harmful to someone’s reputation.

That was the basis of “seditious libel,” which was nothing more than criticism of the government. That notion began to fade away following the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, a printer whose New York newspaper had defamed the royal governor, William Cosby. A jury acquitted Zenger after his lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, persuaded its members that truth should be a defense in a libel case. It was an early example of jury nullification, as Hamilton’s argument had no basis in the law of that day. Gradually, though, truth came to be seen as perhaps the ultimate defense in a libel case.

Before Times v. Sullivan, libel was based on a two-legged stool — defamation and falsity. The decision added a third leg — fault. From that point on, public officials filing a libel claim would have to prove that the defamatory falsehoods published about them had been made with actual malice — that is, with the knowledge that they were false, or with “reckless disregard for the truth,” which later came to be defined as strongly suspecting that the statements were false.

There’s no question that this presents a high barrier for public officials. But it also gave the press the protection it needed to engage in high-stakes investigative reporting. As the late Anthony Lewis pointed out in his book “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate,” reporting on the Pentagon Papers and Watergate would have been much more difficult without Times v. Sullivan.

In the years following Times v. Sullivan, the standard was refined so that public figures would also have to prove actual malice; even private figures would at least have to show that the press had acted negligently.

Silberman’s dissent, by the way, is really something, drenched with grievances against the so-called liberal media. He writes:

There can be no doubt that the New York Times case has increased the power of the media. Although the institutional press, it could be argued, needed that protection to cover the civil rights movement, that power is now abused. In light of today’s very different challenges, I doubt the Court would invent the same rule

As the case has subsequently been interpreted, it allows the press to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity. It would be one thing if this were a two-sided phenomenon…. The increased power of the press is so dangerous today because we are very close to one-party control of these institutions.

He goes on to call The New York Times and The Washington Post “virtually Democratic broadsheets,” and lumps in most of the rest of the press as well. (The Boston Globe get a shoutout.) He cites Fox News, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the New York Post as exceptions, but adds “there are serious efforts to muzzle Fox News.”

I do not know what he’s talking about, unless he regards the mutterings of a small handful of Democratic members of Congress and media activists as “serious.” He also lambastes social media for cracking down on the right, disregarding the reality that those efforts have been aimed at eliminating falsehoods, not conservative opinions.

And as Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple pointed out, the conservative outlets cited as exceptions by Silberman surely are in need of actual-malice protections as much as others. (Fox and the New York Post more than most, I’d imagine.)

Silberman ends with this broadside:

It should be borne in mind that the first step taken by any potential authoritarian or dictatorial regime is to gain control of communications, particularly the delivery of news. It is fair to conclude, therefore, that one-party control of the press and media is a threat to a viable democracy. It may even give rise to countervailing extremism. The First Amendment guarantees a free press to foster a vibrant trade in ideas. But a biased press can distort the marketplace. And when the media has proven its willingness — if not eagerness — to so distort, it is a profound mistake to stand by unjustified legal rules that serve only to enhance the press’ power.

Fortunately, most conservative judges on the Supreme Court and elsewhere have taken at least as expansive a few of the First Amendment as their liberal colleagues. Thomas and Silberman would appear to be outliers. But freedom of the press is never guaranteed. This bears watching to see whether what is now a tiny flame somehow blows up into a conflagration.