Theory: Thomas Emerson and Times v. Sullivan

The 1964 case of New York Times versus Sullivan had a large impact on free speech laws in its time and today, 50 years later. In this case, civil rights campaigners placed an ad in the NYT that expressed their anger towards the police officials in Alabama. However, Sullivan, the Montgomery Public Safety Commissioner for Alabama, filed a libel suit against NYT because he felt personally defamed. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided that NYT was not at fault for printing an advertisement that criticized a public official. The main theory behind this decision is that speech–be it true or false–should be protected by the First Amendment as long as there is no foreknowledge of its falsity.

This case exemplifies the importance of protecting free speech to allow for a diverse marketplace of ideas. Thomas Emerson is an important theorist to examine as a lot of his theory played a role in NYT versus Sullivan. Mainly, he believed that freedom of expression was essential because it assures self-fulfillment, is essential for advancing knowledge and attaining truth, allows participation in decision-making for all of society, and leads to a more stable community. These ideas are evident in the NYT versus Sullivan decision in that the actual malice standard gives First Amendment protection for the expression of speech, even if it contains falsity, so long as the statements were not made with “reckless disregard for the truth.” Emerson would submit that the actual malice standard which makes claiming defamation more difficult is important because it allows the press to freely express people’s ideas and beliefs. Ultimately, an increase in the freedom of the press promotes a free marketplace of ideas, where truth will win in the end.


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