• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment allows for public persons to win libel suits against journalists who deliberately distort the meaning of their statements.

Janet Malcolm, a contributor to The New Yorker magazine, published a two-part article that was highly critical of psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, a former director of the Sigmund Freud Archives. In a libel suit against Malcolm and the magazine, Masson claimed that many of the statements attributed to him in quotation marks were fabrications. Because he was a public person, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan[case]New York Times Co. v. Sullivan[New York Times Co. v. Sullivan] (1964) was applicable to the suit, and therefore, Masson had the burden of proving actual malice, which meant either knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for truthful reporting. The lower federal courts dismissed the suit, holding that interpretations of actual statements did not constitute actual malice.Libel;Masson v. New Yorker Magazine[Masson v. New Yorker Magazine]Press, freedom of;Masson v. New Yorker Magazine[Masson v. New Yorker Magazine]

By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court rejected the lower courts’ judgment and remanded the case for a jury trial. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’sKennedy, Anthony M.;Masson v. New Yorker Magazine[Masson v. New Yorker Magazine] opinion for the majority held that a “deliberate alteration of words” in a statement constitutes a knowledge of falsity if it materially changes “the meaning conveyed by the statement.” In the upcoming trial, therefore, the jury would have the task of deciding whether the meaning of Masson’s statements had been sufficiently altered to satisfy the Sullivan standard. The Masson decision provided notice to writers and publishers to be very careful when using quotation marks that appear to denote a person’s actual words.

Libel

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

Speech and press, freedom of

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