Clarence Thomas Urges Supreme Court to Revisit Landmark Decision, Make it Easier to Win Defamation Cases

“We should'” revisit the actual malice standard, Thomas wrote in a dissenting opinion

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One reason Johnny Depp’s legal victory over Amber Heard was so shocking: Defamation is extremely difficult to prove under existing U.S. law.

Justice Clarence Thomas thinks the burden of proof should be significantly lightened.

Thomas reiterated his position this week that he would like to revisit the “actual malice” standard established in New York Times v. Sullivan. The 1964 landmark case held that if a defamation plaintiff is a public person, they have an additional burden to prove the defendant knew the defamatory statement was false, or at least disregarded that possibility.

“We have never inquired whether ‘The First or Fourteenth Amendment, as originally understood, encompasses and actual-malice standard,’” Thomas wrote while dissenting in Coral Ridge Ministries v. the Southern Poverty Law Center. Coral Ridge claimed that the SPLC harmed it by labeling it a “hate group,” and asked the Supreme Court to revisit actual-malice standard, which the Court declined to do.

“This case is one of many showing how New York Times and its progeny have allowed media organizations and interest groups to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity,” Thomas wrote.

Thomas has signaled a desire to revisit New York Times vs. Sullivan before. He and Justice Neil Gorsuch had similarly dissented in a 2021 defamation case that the Court also declined to hear.