A series of high-profile lawsuits lend real legal weight to America’s cultural and political debate over free speech.
Why is this important: While conservatives oppose censorship perceptions and progressives call for tougher restrictions on misinformation, the courts are where the real-world rules of the road are written.
State of play: Legal battles over free speech have “certainly been sparked,” said Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment expert at the Freedom Forum, a free speech nonprofit.
- There are a growing number of people “with money and an ax to grind who realize they can score public and political points by pursuing these lawsuits,” he said.
Driving the news: Johnny Depp’s libel lawsuit against Amber Heard – which he ultimately won – has become a polarizing cultural flashpoint, especially on TikTok.
- Kyle Rittenhouse – the young adult who gained infamy after shooting three people, killing two, in Kenosha, Wisconsin – said Depp’s victory inspired him to file his own libel suit.
- Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy said he was suing Insider and one of its authors earlier this year over an article alleging he took videos of women performing sex acts without their consent.
- Former Alaska governor and running mate Sarah Palin, meanwhile, lost her libel suit against The New York Times, after a court ruled she failed to to prove that the newspaper had acted with “actual malice” towards him – the high bar that defamation claims must set.
- Former President Trump has also forced the courts to grapple with new First Amendment issues. A federal appeals court ruled in 2020 that Trump cannot block people on Twitter.
Between the lines: The share of Americans who believe their free speech rights are less secure is down – from 56% in 2016 to 46% today.
- Democrats are twice as likely to say they feel their free speech rights are protected compared to Republicans and independents, according to a January Knight Foundation poll.
And after: Two Supreme Court justices – Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch – said the court should consider overturning New York Times versus Sullivan.
- Thomas dissented last week as the court rejected a new challenge to the historic precedent. “New York Times and its offspring have enabled media organizations and interest groups to level false accusations against public figures with impunity,” he wrote.
However, the court refused to review Sullivan, and has also dismissed other similar challenges in recent years. While the High Court stands by its precedent and lower courts hand down rulings like the ones that stopped the president from blocking people online, freedom of speech is still protected.
Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s last name.