This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 9

by Ed Whelan

1964—Does the New York Times lack First Amendment rights because it is owned and operated by a corporation? The idiotic suggestion embedded in that question will confound New York Times editors decades later, but it properly plays no role in the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. Sullivan.

The Court unanimously overturns a libel judgment of $500,000 in punitive damages entered in favor of Montgomery (Alabama) city commissioner L.B. Sullivan against the New York Times Company and four black ministers whose names were attached to a full-page advertisement that protested against mistreatment of blacks in the South. But illustrating that racist facts generate bad law, the Court doesn’t limit itself to the solid ground that there was zero evidence that the allegedly libelous statements could plausibly have been understood to refer to Sullivan.

Instead, relying heavily on a 1908 Kansas supreme court case, Justice Brennan’s majority opinion invents the rule that the First Amendment “prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

Three justices would go even further—by recognizing an “unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs” (Black, joined by Douglas) and “an absolute, unconditional privilege to criticize official conduct despite the harm which may flow from excesses and abuses” (Goldberg, joined by Douglas).

1983—In Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Watt, the en banc D.C. Circuit rules, by a 6-5 vote, that the First Amendment bars the National Park Service from applying its anti-camping regulations to demonstrators who, as part of their protests on behalf of the poor and the homeless, sought permission to sleep in Lafayette Park. The six justices in the majority divide among four separate opinions, leading Judge Malcolm Wilkey in dissent to observe that “it seems apparent that [our six colleagues] are quite sure that these appellants should be allowed to sleep in Lafayette Park, but they have had great difficulty in figuring out why.”

Judge Wilkey, in the principal dissent (for all five dissenters), opines that even on the assumption that sleeping qualifies as speech for First Amendment purposes, the anti-camping regulations may be applied. Judge Antonin Scalia (joined by Judges MacKinnon and Bork) separately dissents “flatly to deny that sleeping is or can ever be speech for First Amendment purposes.” Scalia observes: “That this should seem a bold assertion is a commentary upon how far judicial and scholarly discussion of this basic constitutional guarantee has strayed from common and common-sense understanding.”

One year later, in Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, the Supreme Court will reverse the D.C. Circuit by a 7-2 vote (with—surprise!—Justices Brennan and Marshall in dissent).             

Bench Memos

NRO’s home for judicial news and analysis.