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WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas criticized a landmark press freedom case on Tuesday, calling for a new look at the rule that public figures cannot successfully sue for libel unless they can demonstrate that a statement was made with actual malice.
The court ruled in the 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan that a public figure must prove a defamatory statement was made "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." The case was brought by a county official in Alabama who claimed he was defamed by an advertisement in the paper criticizing police response to the civil rights movement.
Thomas called the ruling and similar ones in follow-on cases "policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law" and said the court should reconsider.
"If the Constitution does not require public figures to satisfy an actual-malice standard in state-law defamation suits, then neither should we."
President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the legal rules for libel actions, calling them a sham and a disgrace.
"We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws, so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts," he said a year ago.
Thomas' comments came in an opinion on Tuesday concurring with the court's refusal to hear an appeal from Katherine McKee, who claimed she was raped by Bill Cosby. She said Cosby's lawyer leaked a letter that distorted her background and damaged her reputation.
Lower courts dismissed her case, citing the 1964 Times v. Sullivan precedent. They said by disclosing her accusation against Cosby to a reporter she "thrust herself to the forefront of a public controversy" and therefore had to meet the more demanding libel standard applying to public figures.
She appealed those rulings, and the Supreme Court declined to take the case by an apparently unanimous vote. Thomas said he agreed the New York Times precedent required that outcome, but he said the 1964 case was wrongly decided.
Before the Times ruling, Thomas said, a person claiming defamation needed to prove only that a statement was false and resulted in ridicule, hatred, or contempt. Libels against public figures were considered more serious than ordinary defamations, he said.
No other justice joined his opinion.