A new article in the Georgia Law Review
details the relationship of two U.S. Supreme Court cases, their impact on freedom of expression, and how they relate to blogging and citizen journalism.
Corporate journalists have long held that they have rights that prevent them from being penalized for their work - Rolling Stone magazine recently engaged in sloppy journalism about a rape allegation. They did no fact checking, interviewed no one except the person alleging there was a crime, and yet ruined smeared college students at a fraternity without hesitation. Those young men have little recourse, and the reason for that is also what helps protect journalists, including the citizen kind. The new article focuses on New York Times v. Sullivan and its companion case, Abernathy v. Sullivan, in which the court upheld the First Amendment rights of the press and ministers active in the civil rights movement.
While many are familiar with the landmark case New York Times v. Sullivan, the companion case of Abernathy v. Sullivan is lesser known. Both cases ruled on an editorial advertisement published in the New York Times in 1960 called "Heed Their Rising Voices" supporting the civil rights movement. L.B. Sullivan, public safety commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama, sued the New York Times for defamation, and in a separate case sued four Alabama ministers who appeared to have endorsed the advertisement. Both the New York Times and the four ministers were found liable in Alabama courts and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The article by
William E. Lee, professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, explains why the Supreme Court ultimately blended the two cases together and ruled in favor of the New York Times and the four ministers on First Amendment grounds.
"It's important to understand that by blending the Abernathy and Times cases, the court was holding that both the ministers and the press had equal First Amendment protection," said Lee.
According to Justice William J. Brennan Jr., who wrote for the majority, the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and petitioning the government are interrelated components and fall under the collective "freedoms of expression."
The relationship segues to today's citizen journalists who have expanded the definition of journalists.
"Anyone can be a journalist and they don't need an affiliation with an established outlet," said Lee about one of the points of his article. "It's increasingly important that unaffiliated journalists know they have the same legal protection as a reporter at a newspaper. It's significant for the development of alternative forms of expression that do not fit neatly in our traditional concepts of speech or press."
The article also focuses on how judges today struggle with defining the rights of citizen journalists.
"Judges have tried to define the press and the results have often not been pretty," Lee said.