Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case Challenging New York Times v. Sullivan

On Tuesday, October 10, 2023, the United States Supreme Court denied review in Blankenship v. NBCUniversal, a lawsuit seeking to challenge the actual malice rule for defamation cases

At issue in Blankenship is “(1) [w]hether the actual-malice standard imposed on public-figure plaintiffs in defamation cases should be replaced; and (2) whether the framework for summary judgment in public-figure defamation cases should be reformed.” The plaintiff in the case, Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship, was convicted by a jury of a federal conspiracy offense in 2015. This offense is classified as a misdemeanor. The conviction is related to a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 coal miners. Blankenship campaigned for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2018, at which time Fox News, MSNBC, and other media outlets characterized Blankenship as a “felon.” Blankenship filed a defamation lawsuit in response.

The U.S. District Court granted summary judgment for all sixteen defendants after concluding that the statements at issue were not made with actual malice. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s orders granting summary judgment. Blankenship then filed a petition for for writ of certiorari seeking to challenge the actual malice standard from New York Times v. Sullivan, which requires that a public figure prove a defamatory statement was made with actual malice – “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” The Supreme Court declined to hear Blankenship’s case and provided no explanation.

Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion, stating that “Blankenship’s claims are independently subject to an actual-malice standard as a matter of state law. . . In an appropriate case, however, we should reconsider New York Times and our other decisions displacing state defamation law.” Justice Thomas criticized New York Times, pointing out that “[t]he Court did not base this ‘actual malice’ rule in the original meaning of the First Amendment.” Justice Thomas reiterated his long-standing desire to reconsider the actual-malice standard. He stated  that the decisions extending the standard “‘were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law,'” that “the actual-malice standard comes at a heavy cost, allowing media organizations and interest groups ‘to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity,'” and that “[t]he Court cannot justify continuing to impose a rule of its own creation when it has not ‘even inquired whether the First or Fourteenth Amendment, as originally understood, encompasses an actual-malice standard.'”

Additional Reading

Court won’t hear case seeking to overturn New York Times v. Sullivan, SCOTUSblog (October 10, 2023)

US Supreme Court turns away challenge to media defamation protections, Reuters (October 10, 2023)

Denial of Petition for Writ of Certiorari in Blankenship v. NBCUniversal

Opinion in Don Blankenship v. NBCUniversal, LLC, No. 22-1198 (4th Cir. 2023)

Photo Credit: Feng Yu /