How a super-empowered minority and our outmoded Constitution upended Roe

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is so huge and terrible that it’s difficult to get our arms around it. So let me just look at a small chunk of it — the deeply undemocratic nature of our electoral system. You can find various polls with differently worded questions, but, in general, the public was firmly in favor of retaining Roe before Thursday’s decision. So how did we get here?

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating. A healthy modern democracy is based on the will of the majority, with protections in place for the minority. That’s why we have the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, we now have a situation where a minority of voters is so super-empowered that how the majority votes almost doesn’t matter. Consider:

  • Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes. That’s a significant margin. But because the Electoral College favors small states, which are mostly Republican, Trump was able to defeat Hillary Clinton.
  • Those three justices were confirmed by a Republican Senate that represented far fewer Americans than the Democratic senators did. In the current 50-50 Senate, Democrats represent nearly 42 million more people than Republicans. That’s because each state gets two senators, regardless of population.
  • The skew is only getting worse as liberals move to more urban areas. Indeed, you can expect that one of the effects of the Roe decision is that young people will flock to urban areas in blue states — thus empowering small-state Republicans even more.

If something can’t go on forever, then it won’t. More than half the country isn’t going to put up with being permanently disempowered. I don’t know how we get from here to there, and make the changes we need to our outmoded 18th-century Constitution, but I’m confident that we will. Change looks impossible — then, suddenly, everything changes all at once.

Politico’s extraordinary scoop on the end of Roe signals dark days ahead

Photo (cc) 2014 by Thomas Hawk

A few words about the extraordinary scoop broken Monday evening by Politico that the U.S. Supreme Court has put together a draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, thus freeing states to ban abortion.

First, we all make fun of Politico. I make fun of Politico. It succeeded by taking the horse-race approach to politics and amping it up on steroids, which hasn’t been good for anyone. But Politico is a large news organization with many talented journalists, most definitely including Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward, who broke the Roe story. It is possible to both generalize about Politico’s shortcomings and praise it when it produces extraordinary work.

Second, Brian Stelter, writing for CNN’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter, flagged a tweet from SCOTUSblog that is worth pondering: “It’s impossible to overstate the earthquake this will cause inside the Court, in terms of the destruction of trust among the Justices and staff. This leak is the gravest, most unforgivable sin.

Good. If the right-wing majority is going to turn back the clock on reproductive rights by 50 years, then let the entire court descend into scorpions in a bottle. The interests of society as a whole may be better served by the spectacle of a court in chaos. We all need to understand that this is now a rogue institution, undone by Donald Trump’s illegitimate choices of Neil Gorsuch, who holds the seat that should have gone to Merrick Garland, and Amy Coney Barrett, rushed through at the last minute.

Third, the draft decision cites the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson as a case whose outcome was so egregiously wrong that it had to be overturned in its entirety. Plessy failed to recognize the rights of Black Americans under the 14th Amendment and was in fact reversed in Brown v. Board of Education 58 years later. The decision to overturn Roe, though, is more like Plessy than Brown in that it takes away long-established constitutional rights.

Historian Heather Cox Richardson compares the draft opinion to the infamous Dred Scott decision, the 1857 Supreme Court case that took away what few rights Black Americans had at that time and paved the way for the Civil War. She writes in her newsletter:

And so here we are. A minority, placed in control of the U.S. Supreme Court by a president who received a minority of the popular vote and then, when he lost reelection, tried to overturn our democracy, is explicitly taking away a constitutional right that has been protected for fifty years. Its attack on federal protection of civil rights applies not just to abortion, but to all the protections put in place since World War II: the right to use birth control, marry whomever you wish, live in desegregated spaces, and so on.

The decision isn’t final yet, but I don’t see how we can expect it to change. This is a dark day in American history — the latest in many dark days. God help us all.

Why dark money in the Sarah Palin libel case could distort justice

Peter Thiel. Photo (cc) 2012 by Hubert Burda Media.

Jack Shafer asks an important question: Who is funding Sarah Palin’s legal battle against The New York Times? As Shafer observes in his new Politico Magazine piece, Palin’s legal team overlaps with the lawyers who represented Hulk Hogan in his lawsuit against Gawker. That effort turned out to be funded by Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel, who was aggrieved at having been outed by a Gawker-owned website. Shafer writes:

Nobody can criticize Palin for passing the hat to finance her case — if that’s what she did. Lawsuits are expensive and crowdfunding them without naming the funders is a time-honored practice — civil liberties groups do it routinely — and the practice is especially praiseworthy when the litigation is of the “impact” variety, designed to change the law and protect rights. But as the Gawker case demonstrated, such lawsuits can also be seen as punitive exercises, financed by a third party as payback.

The problem is that when lawsuits are funded by vast sums of dark money, they can have a distorting effect. Hogan’s invasion-of-privacy suit after Gawker published video of him having sex without his permission was certainly worthy of pursuing. But in the ordinary course of such matters, it would have been settled and life would have gone on. Instead, Hogan’s lawyers used secret Thiel money to push the suit all the way to its conclusion, with Gawker ultimately going bankrupt and shutting down. (The site has since been relaunched under new ownership.)

Unlike Hogan’s case, Palin’s libel suit against the Times is entirely lacking in merit. The Times published an editorial falsely tying Palin’s rhetoric to the 2011 shooting of then-congresswoman Gabby Giffords and the killings of six others. But there was zero evidence that the Times acted with “actual malice” (knowing falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth), which is the standard for public officials and public figures.

Palin’s suit shouldn’t have gotten as far as it did, and the devastating defeat she suffered this week ought to put an end to it. But if she’s backed by an endless stream of screw-you money, she can keep pushing, and perhaps get her case eventually heard by the U.S. Supreme Court — where Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have indicated they’re prepared to overturn or pare back the libel standards that have protected the press since the landmark 1964 Times v. Sullivan decision.

Could Sarah Palin, of all people, be the catalyst who tears down libel protections for the press?

Sarah Palin. Photo (cc) 2021 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at GBH News.

For the past several years, a few conservative judges have been saying they’re ready to do what was once unthinkable: reverse the libel protections that the press has enjoyed since the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision.

The threat began with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote in 2019 that he believed it was time to return libel jurisdiction to the states. It accelerated in early 2021, when Laurence Silberman, an influential judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, called Times v. Sullivan “a profound mistake.” And it reached a crescendo of sorts last fall, when Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch said that he, too, thought the time had come to revisit what has been settled law for nearly 60 years.

Soon an opportunity may arrive for Thomas and Gorsuch to act on their words — and it comes in the unlikely person of Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate whose caustic attacks on “the lamestream media” presaged the Age of Trump.

Palin is suing The New York Times for libel, claiming that a 2017 editorial tying her incendiary rhetoric to the 2011 shooting of then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — a crime that also claimed the lives of six people — was false and defamatory. Jury selection in the long-delayed trial had been set to begin this past Monday in U.S. District Court. Then we learned that Palin had tested positive for COVID-19. “She is of course unvaccinated,” said Judge Jed Rakoff. Yes, of course. And the proceedings have been delayed until Feb. 3.

There is no question that there were mistakes in the Times editorial, published after a gunman shot and injured several members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Stephen Scalise. The Times compared the event to the Giffords shootings and noted that Palin’s political action committee had published a map on Facebook with gunsights over the districts of several members of Congress it hoped to defeat — including Giffords.

After that, things went awry. First, the editorial originally stated that the map targeted “electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.” In fact, the map targeted only the districts, not the members themselves. More consequentially, the editorial tied the map to the shootings, stating: “In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear.” (You can read the original Times editorial here, at the Internet Archive; the revised and corrected version is here. You can see the map here.)

There’s an old saying that bad cases make bad law, and this may prove to be a bad case. Palin may be an unsympathetic figure, but the Times is the epitome of an arrogant, out-of-touch institution — the very symbol of the liberal establishment. Worse, its editorial really did falsely claim that the Palin map led directly to the Giffords shootings. In fact, there is no evidence that Loughner, the mentally ill gunman, ever even knew about Palin’s ad.

So why does this matter? Under the Times v. Sullivan standard, Palin, as a public figure, can’t win her suit unless she is able to show that the Times acted with “actual malice” — that is, that it knew what it had published was false or strongly suspected it was false, a standard known as “reckless disregard for the truth.”

In fact, as Bill Grueskin wrote in an in-depth overview of the case for the Columbia Journalism Review last fall, there is more than ample evidence that the Times acted out of sloppiness, not venality. The then-editorial page editor, James Bennet, added the errors while he was editing the piece, apparently oblivious to the actual facts. (Bennet’s tenure came to an end in 2020 after he ran an op-ed by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton calling for military force against Black Lives Matter protesters. It turned out that Bennet hadn’t even stirred himself to read Cotton’s screed before publication.)

The whole point of the Times v. Sullivan decision is to protect the media from libel actions brought by public officials and public figures on the basis of inadvertent or careless mistakes, which is what seems to be at issue in the Palin case. But will a jury see it that way?

A couple more points about the Palin case.

First, I haven’t seen much emphasis in pretrial coverage on the Times’ original description of the gunsights on Palin’s map as being over the members of Congress (suggesting that photos of them were used) rather than over their districts. It will be interesting to see how much Palin’s lawyers make of that once the trial begins.

Second, and more substantively, is that in order for a libel suit to succeed, the plaintiff must prove what was published about them was false and defamatory. And here’s where I find myself wondering how strong a case Palin actually has. The most significant falsehood in the Times editorial had nothing to do with anything that Palin or her PAC said or did; rather, it was the assertion that Loughner was incited to violence by the Palin map.

It remains an undeniable fact that Palin’s PAC published a map with gunsights over the districts of the 20 Democrats, accompanied by such belligerent rhetoric as: “We’ll aim for these races and many others. This is just the first salvo in a fight to elect people across the nation who will bring common sense to Washington. Please go to sarahpac.com and join me in the fight.”

Given that, how can Palin claim that the Times published anything false about her? What she did was mind-bogglingly irresponsible, and I’m not sure why it matters that her actions did not lead to any actual violence.

I put the question to a couple of First Amendment experts. One, Boston lawyer Harvey Silverglate, said that the Times’ (mostly) truthful description of Palin’s actions should cut against Palin’s libel claims. “Since the Times accurately described what Palin did,” Silverglate told me by email, “it would not matter whether it actually incited violence.

Taking a different view was Justin Silverman, a lawyer who is executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “Just because Loughner didn’t use the map as motivation, [that] doesn’t mean that readers of the NYT weren’t told that he did — which arguably is the same as being told that Palin incited the violence and is responsible for that violence by publishing her map,” he said in an email. Silverman added: “By incorrectly saying that Loughner was motivated by the map, isn’t the NYT also incorrectly saying that Palin incited Loughner by publishing it?”

Nevertheless, Silverman said the Times should prevail if it is able to prove that its errors resulted from “sloppy journalism” rather than actual malice.

Which brings us back to where we started. Regardless of whether Palin wins her case, it seems likely that it will begin to wend its way through the appeals process — and perhaps to the Supreme Court.

Historically, conservative as well as liberal justices have supported strong First Amendment protections. But now we have two justices who appear ready to modify or overturn a vitally important precedent. And we are already seeing signs that the six conservative justices may be willing to overturn longstanding precedents such as Roe v. Wade, the 1972 case that guarantees the right to an abortion.

Powerful institutions are held to account by a powerful press. Without Times v. Sullivan, news organizations are likely to shy away from investigative reporting for fear of losing libel cases because of carelessness or unavoidable mistakes.

It would be a bitter irony if Sarah Palin, of all people, proves to be the vehicle through which the media are taken down.

What, if anything, went wrong with Nina Totenberg’s story on SCOTUS and masks?

Nina Totenberg. Photo (cc) 2012 by the Asia Society.

It’s impossible to know what, if anything, went wrong with Nina Totenberg’s story about a mask dispute between Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch without also knowing the details of Totenberg’s interactions with her unnamed sources — or source.

But it has the hallmarks of a situation in which the justices, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, jumped on a small wording problem in order to back away from a controversy they regretted. Totenberg, NPR’s veteran legal affairs reporter, was the collateral damage.

It began with a report last Tuesday morning in which Totenberg noted that, since the rise of omicron, all of the justices had been wearing masks to hearings — all, that is, except Gorsuch. Sotomayor, who has diabetes and who normally sits next to Gorsuch, had been appearing remotely from her office.

Roberts, Totenberg reported, had “in some form asked the other justices to mask up,” and only Gorsuch had failed to comply.

The next day came this, also under Totenberg’s byline:

On Wednesday, Sotomayor and Gorsuch issued a statement saying that she did not ask him to wear a mask. NPR’s report did not say that she did. Then, the chief justice issued a statement saying he “did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench.” The NPR report said the chief justice’s ask to the justices had come “in some form.”

NPR stands by its reporting.

So what did Roberts actually say? We don’t know. NPR’s ombudsman, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, wrote that Totenberg remained confident she got it right but was hazy on exactly how Roberts indicated to the other justices that he wanted them to wear masks. “If I knew exactly how he communicated this I would say it,” Totenberg told  McBride. “Instead I said ‘in some form.’”

McBride’s conclusion was that Totenberg’s story was essentially accurate but that she shouldn’t have used the word “asked,” even modified by “in some form.” McBride also called for a “clarification,” but not a correction, to be appended to Totenberg’s story. Which in turn led Totenberg to tell The Daily Beast, “She [McBride] can write any goddamn thing she wants, whether or not I think it’s true. She’s not clarifying anything!”

The situation reminds me of the smackdown delivered by then-special counsel Robert Mueller in early 2019 after BuzzFeed News reported that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had told investigators that Donald Trump had “directed” him to lie under oath before Congress about a Trump Tower deal in Moscow. Mueller had his spokesman characterize the story as “not accurate,” and the episode was seen as a serious blunder by BuzzFeed.

Lo and behold, several months later we learned that BuzzFeed had it right all along. If I may speculate, it looked to me like Mueller took advantage of a minor exaggeration in the story in order to denounce the whole thing at a moment when it looked like Trump might shut down the entire special counsel’s investigation. BuzzFeed was thrown under the bus, and the investigation was saved.

Totenberg’s story was the culmination of an eventful few weeks for Justice Sotomayor. On Jan. 8, Washington Post “Fact Check” columnist Glenn Kessler took her to task for saying during oral arguments, “We have over 100,000 children, which we’ve never had before, in serious condition and many on ventilators.” That number appeared to be 20 times higher than was actually the case. Kessler saw fit to assign her statement a “Four Pinocchios” rating, thus labeling what was almost certainly a spontaneous slip-up as a lie.

At around the same time, Politico’s “Playbook” newsletter ran a story and a photo showing a woman who was identified as Sotomayor sitting back-to at a restaurant with Democratic members of Congress. O, the hypocrisy! Except that it wasn’t Sotomayor — it was Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall. “Our tipster got it wrong, but we should have double-checked,” Politico said in its correction. No kidding.

As for whether and how Chief Justice Roberts asked “in some form” that the justices mask up, we’ll probably never know precisely what transpired. But we do know this: Every justice has been wearing a mask to oral arguments except Gorsuch. And Sotomayor didn’t feel it was safe for her to attend.

How new threats to libel protections could weaken Times v. Sullivan

Is this Devin Nunes’ cow? Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Trouble has been bubbling for the past several years regarding libel protections for the press.

In 2019, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that it was time to reconsider the landmark 1964 ruling of New York Times v. Sullivan, which decreed that public officials can’t bring a successful libel suit unless they can prove that false, defamatory material about them was published in the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. (That standard was later extended to public figures as well.)

Then, as I wrote earlier this year, Thomas was joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch in an opinion so slick you could slip on it and get hurt.

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Next week, the court will consider whether to hear two libel cases that would give them an opportunity to weaken the Times v. Sullivan protections. Thomas and Gorsuch may prove to be outliers, but given the court’s new supercharged conservative majority, we shouldn’t take anything for granted. First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams writes in The New York Times:

Should the court agree to hear one or both of the libel cases does not mean, of course, that either or both would be overruled…. But it is troubling that two of the court’s nine justices have criticized Sullivan and seem ready to overrule it. Only four votes are required for the full court to take up cases, and if it does so, a fifth would be needed for any ruling.

And that’s not the only sign of trouble on the libel front. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post details a bizarre case involving U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican who is so litigious that he once sued a Twitter account called “Devin Nunes’ Cow.”

I’m not going to go deep into the details; Wemple’s got that nailed down for you. But the outline of it is that Nunes sued the journalist Ryan Lizza over an article he wrote for Esquire. Nunes’ libel claim appears to be hanging by a thread — again, because it seems unlikely that Nunes will be able to meet the Times v. Sullivan standard. But at some point after he filed his lawsuit, Lizza tweeted out a link to the article. Nunes, of course, claimed that was libelous as well.

Rather than tossing the Twitter claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit have kept it alive for further consideration, “even though” as Wemple writes, “other courts have ruled that just linking to a long-standing story doesn’t constitute ‘republication.'” The court ruled that because Nunes’ suit put Lizza on notice that his story might contain falsehoods, then he should have refrained from tweeting it out (never mind that Lizza insists his story was true). But Wemple quotes Jeffrey Pyle, a Boston-based First Amendment lawyer at Prince Lobel Tye:

Until now, the courts have been unanimous that hyperlinks, retweets, and other references to allegedly defamatory articles are not “republications.” The Eighth Circuit departs from this consensus without much, if any, explanation why.

Journalists are able to do the work they do because they don’t have to worry about frivolous lawsuits. That has now come under question, and we all need to keep a close eye on what happens next.

The Supreme Court’s vote to uphold the Texas abortion law is an affront to democracy

Photo (cc) 2006 by OZinOH

In analyzing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote not to overturn Texas’ drastic new abortion restrictions, a number of commentators have focused on the role played by the three justices nominated by Donald Trump — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

All three, needless to say, are wildly controversial. Gorsuch was chosen after then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused even to take up Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, who’s now attorney general. Kavanaugh was confirmed despite serious and credible allegations of sexual assault. Barrett was rushed through before the 2020 election following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But there is a more systemic problem, and that’s the failure of democracy that made last’s week’s decision possible. Trump, as we all know, lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by about 3 million votes. He won only because the Electoral College, a relic of slavery, provides small rural states with disproportionate power. Yet he got to appoint one-third of the current court.

Moreover, all three of Trump’s justices were confirmed by a Senate controlled by the Republicans even though they represented fewer people than the Democrats. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were confirmed during the first two years of Trump’s term, when the Democratic senators represented 56% of the population nationwide compared to the Republican share of 44%. That margin had narrowed slightly by the time Barrett was confirmed, but 53% of the population was still represented by Democratic senators compared to 47% by Republicans. (See my analysis.)

The other two justices who voted to uphold the Texas law were Clarence Thomas, appointed by George H.W. Bush, who was a majority president, and Samuel Alito, appointed by George W. Bush during his second term, which he won by a majority after losing the popular vote the first time around. But that’s just two votes. If Obama and Clinton had named three justices instead of Trump, it’s easy to imagine that the Texas law would have been suspended by a 7-2 vote. It’s just as easy to imagine that the Texas legislature wouldn’t have passed such a perverse and draconian law in the first place.

This is not democracy. Nor is it republicanism, since a properly designed republic is supposed to represent a majority of the electorate by proxy. It’s fair to ask how long this can go on before the majority stands up and demands an end to government by the minority.

The Supreme Court may be poised to weaken libel protections for the press

Photo (cc) 2005 by zacklur

Previously published at GBH News.

If we’ve learned anything about right-wing politics in the Age of Trump, it’s that what once seemed impossible becomes plausible — and then morphs into a new reality. We’ve seen it with the refusal to accept the outcome of a democratic election. We’ve seen it with attacks on face masks and vaccines. And now we may be seeing it with libel law.

For more than half a century, protections enacted by the U.S. Supreme Court have shielded the press by enabling journalists to hold the powerful to account without having to worry about frivolous libel suits. The 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan established the principle that a public official would have to prove a news organization acted with “actual malice” — meaning that the offending material was known to be false or was published with “reckless disregard for the truth.” That standard was later extended to public figures as well. The decision provided journalism with the armor it needed to report fearlessly, enabling stories such as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

It seemed impossible that this bulwark would fall when, during the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump promised to “open up libel laws” in order to make it easier for people to sue media outlets. And it seemed only slightly less impossible in early 2019, when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an intemperate dissent arguing that Times v. Sullivan should be overturned in its entirety, returning libel law to the tender mercies of the states.

After all, the actual malice standard was enacted because the racist white power structure in the South had weaponized libel during the civil rights era as a way to intimidate the press. Surely Thomas’ fellow justices had no desire to return to those blighted days. Besides, a strong First Amendment appeared to be one of the few areas on which liberal and conservative judges agreed.

But weakening those protections began to seem more plausible several months ago when Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia praised Thomas — and joined his call to overturn Times v. Sullivan. Silberman threw a judicial tantrum, blasting what he viewed as liberal media bias and writing that “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.”

Impossible. Then plausible. And, now, a glimmer of a potential coming reality: Earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Thomas in dissenting from a decision not to hear a case brought by the son of a former Albanian president against the author of a book who’d accused him of illegal gunrunning. Thomas’ opinion bristles with indignation and approvingly cites Silberman. Gorsuch, in turn, cites Thomas. But unlike Silberman and Thomas, Gorsuch’s opinion is all sweet reasonableness, discussing how much the media have changed since 1964 and asking, gosh darn it, why we shouldn’t acknowledge that social media, cable news and clickbait websites require a different approach to libel.

Arguing — correctly, I should note — that the actual malice standard allows media outlets to escape a libel judgment if they can prove they believed the defamatory falsehoods they published were true, Gorsuch writes: “It seems that publishing without investigation, fact-checking, or editing has become the optimal legal strategy…. Under the actual malice regime as it has evolved, ‘ignorance is bliss.’”

Gorsuch’s conclusion oozes good intentions. “I do not profess any sure answers,” he writes. “I am not even certain of all the questions we should be asking. But given the momentous changes in the Nation’s media landscape since 1964, I cannot help but think the Court would profit from returning its attention, whether in this case or another, to a field so vital to the ‘safe deposit’ of our liberties.”

Gorsuch’s opinion relies heavily on an academic paper titled “Rescuing Our Democracy by Rethinking New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,” by David A. Logan, a professor at the Roger Williams University School of Law. Logan writes that actual malice has provided the media with “what amounts to an absolute immunity from damages actions for false statements,” which in turn has “facilitated a torrent of false information entering our public square.”

Logan’s examination of the data shows that libel judgments have plunged in the years since Times v. Sullivan, suggesting that the decision has created a nearly insurmountable obstacle to public officials and public figures who’ve been wronged. He suggests several possible remedies, such as narrowing the definition of a public figure or devising a system that would allow plaintiffs to “secure a judgment of falsehood in return for giving up a claim for damages.”

And he closes with the big one: getting rid of the actual malice standard altogether and replacing it with something easier to prove, such as “highly unreasonable conduct.”

Changes that result in fewer protections for the press make me queasy. But if the Supreme Court is serious about revisiting actual malice, then adopting something like a juiced-up negligence standard, as Logan proposes, wouldn’t necessarily be the worst outcome. Negligence is already the standard for private figures in most states, as laid out in the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch. It would certainly be better than overturning Times v. Sullivan altogether.

But remember: What seems impossible today may become reality in the not-too-distant future. Changes to libel protections that we had long taken for granted are starting to look inevitable, especially in the hands of a Supreme Court built by Trump and Mitch McConnell. Let’s just hope the justices don’t do too much damage to the press’ ability to hold the powerful to account.

Muzzle follow-up

Well, it happened. The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, singled out former President Donald Trump for whipping up fears about race in the classroom. As I noted, New Hampshire was one of several states considering a ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in public schools and in the workplace.

Trump won. Last Friday, the Portsmouth Herald reported that the ban was inserted into the state budget by Republican legislators, and Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, signed it into law. Oyster River Superintendent James Morse called the new law “a fundamental affront to academic freedom in teaching in terms of teachers making decisions on how they apply the curriculum set by the school board.”

Yes, Dems should filibuster Gorsuch — even though it’s not really about Gorsuch

Judge Merrick Garland, left, meets Sen. Al Franken last March. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

You may have missed it amid the Sturm und Drang over the fate of health care, but late last week Chuck Schumer announced that Senate Democrats would filibuster President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Schumer will almost certainly fail. But it’s worth trying to stop this illegitimate nomination. And if Senate Democrats approach it in the right way, they can make an important statement about our broken system of government and what happens when only one of our major parties is willing to respect the norms and traditions that have long guided us.

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