Libel: Public Officials & Public Men

The U.S. ideal of unhampered public debate on public issues got an unprecedented boost in 1963 when the Supreme Court raised the First Amendment right of free speech as a shield against state libel laws. That shield, ruled the court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, prevents a public official from collecting damages for even false criticism of his 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 or not."

That decision placed a...

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