Happy 50th Birthday, New York Times v. Sullivan

Happy 50th Birthday, New York Times v. Sullivan

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By Reed Lee, Esq.

Today rings in the 50th anniversary of the SCOTUS decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. In my view, this was the single most important free speech case the United States Supreme Court has ever decided. Alexander Mieklejohn described the Sullivan decision as “an occasion for dancing in the streets.” I would like to suggest its 50th anniversary as an occasion for reflection on some of its most powerful words, which encapsulate its meaning:

Thus, we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.

We might reflect even more on the underlying “pre-suppos[ition] that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues than through any kind of authoritative selection.” As Judge Hand once famously put it: “To many this is, and always will be folly; but we have staked upon it our all.

I sometimes travel in circles where it is fashionable to have nothing good to say about a status quo power like the United States. But I’ve walked out of courts having represented clients who admitted shouting “fuck the police” but were acquitted because they personally did not throw the bottle at the cop.

A government and a legal system built on the propositions that the sole legitimate purposes of government is to protect individual rights and that all government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed gives us a great deal of room to argue for–and to often obtain–results which are the envy of the oppressed everywhere.

That’s worth remembering every once and awhile. Not perfect, to be sure; and that’s why the struggle continues.

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