Perhaps no one understood both the necessity and the costs of a free press better than Thomas Jefferson. In a 1787 letter to a friend, he wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Two decades later, Jefferson, by then a president battered by years of criticism, saw things differently. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” he wrote. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
This tension lies at the heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee that “no law” may abridge “the freedom of speech, or of the press.” How is society to preserve open criticism of the government, while also protecting individuals from libel, or the publication of damaging false statements?
Fifty years ago this Sunday, the Supreme Court answered that question with a landmark decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. The ruling instantly changed libel law in the United States, and it still represents the clearest and most forceful defense of press freedom in American history.