The Supreme Court says it won’t consider rewriting defamation law… yet

The Supreme Court says it won’t consider rewriting defamation law… yet

The Supreme Court has turned down a request to revisit a decades-old libel ruling, despite a dissent from Justice Clarence Thomas. This morning, the court denied a petition to hear Coral Ridge Ministries Media v. Southern Poverty Law Center, in which an evangelical Christian ministry accused the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) of falsely designating it as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.

If it had overturned the ruling, the Supreme Court would have greatly increased the odds of public figures winning libel cases in the future. Instead, the decision delays (but likely won’t end) a long-running push to expand the scope of defamation law.

Coral Ridge Ministries Media v. SPLC hinges on the “actual malice” standard — a protection that means public figures must show a false statement was made knowingly or with reckless disregard for its truth in order to win a defamation case. In 2021, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined the SPLC hadn’t acted with actual malice when it added Coral Ridge Ministries (also known as Truth in Action and D. James Kennedy Ministries) to its “Hate Map.” Coral Ridge Ministries asked the Supreme Court to reexamine its ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the case that established the “actual malice” standard in the first place.

The court’s long-awaited decision, which followed several delays, leaves the original precedent standing. But Thomas signaled that he would have chosen to take up the case. In his dissenting opinion, he called the case “one of many” that indicated NYT v. Sullivan had allowed media to “cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity,” complaining that the “almost impossible” standard meant “Coral Ridge could not hold SPLC to account for what it maintains is a blatant falsehood.”

Thomas has repeatedly called for a reevaluation of the actual malice standard, and he’s also urged the court to narrow speech protections beyond libel. In an opinion last year, he laid out a path for the government to regulate moderation on sites like Twitter. He’s also demonstrated an appetite for revisiting earlier cases. Last week, he went far beyond a majority vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, urging the court to revisit decisions that protected contraception access and same-sex marriage. But he’s not the only justice who’s expressed skepticism of the standard. Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Thomas in a 2021 libel case dissent involving the son of Albania’s former prime minister, and Justice Elena Kagan wrote a 1993 book review that criticized NYT v. Sullivan, although Kagan hasn’t signed onto any of Thomas’ opinions or filed similar ones.

Coral Ridge Ministries Media v. SPLC might not have ended with a victory for Coral Ridge Ministries even with the standard overturned because a lower court also wasn’t convinced its inclusion on the “hate map” was a false factual statement rather than an opinion. But it could have dramatically changed the balance of power in US libel cases, making it far easier for powerful figures — like former president Donald Trump, who expressed a desire to “open up libel laws” and has filed multiple suits against news outlets — to win lawsuits. Now, it’s off the table — but it’s almost certainly not the last such case that will reach the Supreme Court.

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