In 1964, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan changed the face of First Amendment law in the United States. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s powerful opinion articulated an expansive vision of the importance of free speech in a democracy and how debate on public issues “should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open.”
Forty years later, the legacy of Times v. Sullivan remains uncertain. Widely varying groups complain about the destruction of reputations, the chilling effect of the actual malice standard, and the high cost of defending against libel suits.
The University of Oregon journalism and law schools explored the underlying assumptions that shaped the decision and the law that followed at a Friday, October 8 conference at the Knight Law Center in Eugene. One hundred people attended.
The keynote speaker was federal appellate judge Gilbert S. Merritt of Nashville, Tennessee, who has publicly criticized government-issued gag orders as a violation of the First Amendment.
Known for his low-key style and consummate professionalism, Merritt has traveled to India and Russia to work with their judicial systems and was one of thirteen experts selected by the U.S. Justice Department in 2003 to rebuild Iraq’s as well. His experience with the Coalition Provisional Authority gag order on speech to all of its member agencies led him to write to his hometown newspaper, I do not think that this kind of control of free speech is the kind of free speech policy most Americans want us to ”launch” in Iraq.
Merritt spoke on Government Has Not Ended Controls on Free Speech.
Joining Merritt to discuss the continued impact of the case on the media were national and regional newspaper journalists, including Washington Post Associate Editor and Columnist David Ignatius, Oregonian editor Sandra Mims Rowe, and LA Times deputy general counsel and vice president Karlene Goller.
In addition, Justice Rives Kistler of the Oregon Supreme Court and David Schuman of the Oregon Court of Appeals joined media law expert David Kohler to explore the case’s impact on the Constitution.
Kohler, who directs the Biederman National Entertainment and Media Law institute at Southwestern University in Los Angeles, said that with a polarized electorate, a country at war and low confidence in the press, the need for uninhibited, robust and wide open debate has never been greater.”
Gilbert S. Merritt, senior judge, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
David C. Kohler, former general counsel for CNN
Washington Post syndicated columnist David Ignatius
First amendment scholar and author Frederick Schauer, Harvard
Oregon Supreme Court Justice Rives Kistler
Los Angeles Times deputy counsel Karlene Goller
Canadian appeals court judge Robert J. Sharpe
Oregonian editor Sandra Mims Rowe
Oregon appeals court judge David Schuman
UO constitutional law professor Garrett Epps
Executive News director Rod Gramer, KGW-TV Portland
Eugene Register Guard managing editor Dave Baker
Bruce Johnson, Davis Wright Tremaine-Portland
Duane Bosworth, Davis Wright Tremaine-Portland
First amendment expert David J. Bodney, Steptoe & Johnson-Phoenix
Media ethics and law expert Jane Kirley, University of Minnesota
First amendment chair occupant Kyu Ho Youm, UO journalism school
and the deans of the UO School of Law and the School of Journalism
– E.S., November, 2004