Keep Your Hands Off Press Freedoms

Tom Hopkins, Staff Writer

Here we go.

​Last week, United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas called for the court to reconsider New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark case which gave us the standard that actual malice must be present for press reports on public figures to be deemed libelous. Actual malice means that the person bringing suit must prove that the publisher knowingly printed something false or acted in reckless disregard for the truth. 

​The unanimous decision was a huge win for the press and for anybody who enjoys their right to free speech.

​In truth, though, freedom of speech has been under siege for quite some time. Justice Thomas’ call to reconsider the standards for libel is just the latest example of the political right’s attack on free speech, an American value they claim to value and protect more than anybody.

President Donald Trump’s campaign threats have finally begun to materialize and now First Amendment freedoms are in danger. Trump has long been calling for libel laws to be changed. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump said he was going to “open up libel laws so when [the press] write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” seemingly unaware that he does not have the power to actually do that.

​However, calls for revisiting the Times v. Sullivan case are far less concerning than the ways the right is already undermining Americans’ First Amendment right to free speech. In December of last year, the Intercept reported on a Texas elementary school speech pathologist that lost her job because she refused to sign an oath vowing that she would not boycott or “otherwise tak[e] any action that is intended to inflict economic harm” on Israel.

Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed the anti-Israel boycott bill into law in May 2017. These seemingly unconstitutional laws have been popping up all over the country since 2015. Texas is just one of 27 states to have an anti-BDS bill on the books, the majority of which are red states.

Furthermore, in addition to Trump rallying against NFL players peacefully protesting against racial injustice, Republican lawmakers in 18 states introduced legislation to limit the right to protest in 2017, shortly after Trump’s inauguration.

​If we don’t stand up for our rights and continue to let the government take and take, we soon will not have any left.

​This is not a partisan issue. This is an American issue. Left or right, this should be concerning to every American. If Times v. Sullivan is to be overturned, the press will lose its ability to hold public figures, such as politicians, accountable. With many media institutions on the brink of financial collapse as it is, the threat of being sued would make news organizations timid and weak.

Americans need the First Amendment to stay intact to maintain the media’s function as a watchdog for the people.