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After 50 years, landmark libel case still relevant in modern, digital age

WASHINGTON--Singer Courtney Love hadn't been born and tweeting was reserved for birds when The New York Times won a landmark libel case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964.

But when a California jury decided recently that Love shouldn't have to pay US$8 million over a troublesome tweet about her former lawyer, she became just the latest person to lean on New York Times v. Sullivan, a case decided 50 years ago Sunday, and the cases that followed and expanded it.

The Sullivan case, as it is known among lawyers, stemmed from Alabama officials' efforts to hamper the newspaper's coverage of civil rights protests in the South. The decision made it hard for public officials to win lawsuits and hefty money awards over published false statements that damaged their reputations.

In the decades since, the justices have extended the decision, making it tough for celebrities, politicians and other public figures to win libel suits.

Newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations were the primary means of publishing when the Sullivan case was decided. Today, the case applies equally to new media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Because of the ease of publishing online, more people may claim the protections granted by the decision and others that followed.

“It seems reasonably clear that the protections afforded by Sullivan and the cases that came after it apply to both media and non-media speakers,” said Lee Levine, a First Amendment lawyer who co-wrote a recent book on the case. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees such basic rights as freedom of the press.

“Technology has afforded everyone — and not just people who can afford to buy a printing press or own a broadcast station — the ability to disseminate information to the world. That has increased the opportunities for those people to publish defamatory statements to a very broad audience,” Levine said.

Levine said it's unclear whether that opportunity will lead to more libel lawsuits, cases brought over the publication of false information that injures someone's reputation. More ways to communicate could mean more lawsuits, or there could be fewer because people may discount what they read online, and it may not be worth suing individuals who don't have corporations' wealth.

Or there may be other explanations.

“Today one of the reasons I think we don't have as many libel cases is not just because the Sullivan rule is so widely accepted by everyone, but in a digital world there's so much greater opportunity for response,” said Bruce W. Sanford, a Washington-based First Amendment lawyer.

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