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Sunday, November 03, 2013

NYT v. Sullivan Anniversary Symposium at U. of Georgia

 The University of Georgia Law Review is hosting an impressive and impressively well organized symposium honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. Justice John Paul Stevens is the keynote speaker,  and David Savage of the LA Times will be giving a lunchtime talk.  The panels of speakers discussing press issues old and new include Justice Steven's former clerk Sonja West, RonNell Andersen Jones, William Lee, Amy Gajda, Amy Kristin Sanders, Lili Levi, Paul Horwitz, and Rodney Smolla, and Hillel Levin will be moderating at least one of the panels.

I will be participating on the "new media" panel, discussing my paper-in-progress, "The Press and Constitutional Self-Help, Then and Now," a synopsis of which is below.

Once upon a time, the U.S. Supreme Court routinely decided press cases, but that period of time came to an end about twenty years ago. The Court’s disinclination to decide press cases kicked in just as the Internet began eroding the press’ traditional role as gatekeeper and translator of news and information and threatening the financial viability of traditional media. As we near the fiftieth anniversary of New York Times v. Sullivan, it is striking how few landmark press cases have been decided since the Internet, and now social media, have entered the scene.

The Supreme Court decided the vast majority of its landmark press cases between 1964 and 1984, in what we media lawyers might now look back on as the “Golden Age” of press cases.  These cases contain some of the Court’s loftiest rhetoric about the special role the press plays in our democracy. Yet these same cases recognize only negative press freedoms; they protect only freedom from government intrusions such as prior restraints or compelled publication but refuse to interpret the First Amendment to provide the press with “special” access to governmental information or institutions not available to other citizens or special exemptions from generally applicable laws that interfere with newsgathering.  The Court’s refusal to recognize affirmative press rights during this period arguably suggests that the Court was merely paying lip service to the notion that the press plays a special role in democracy, for it seems intuitive that a “special role” should come with “special rights.”

I contend, however, that the Supreme Court that decided the press cases of the Golden Age was committed to a special constitutional role for the press but envisioned the press (or, more aptly, the media) as a true Fourth Estate—an unofficial branch of government capable of checking the other three by using its own powerful resources to safeguard its ability to play its special role. The Court assumed  that, in most instances, the media could use its own political and economic power to gain access to government information, protect confidential source relationships, and fight overreaching by the executive or legislative branches. In other words, the Court assumed that the media could engage in “constitutional self-help” to play their role. But this theory of constitutional self-help depends on a number of assumptions about the media that were largely true in the 1970s but may not be today. Media that are economically and politically powerful, popular with the public, and united in pursuit of common goals may indeed be able to fight off threats to their ability to play a special role in our democracy, especially when government officials depend on the media to carry government messages to the public. In light of recent developments, however, it is fair to question the ability of new media to use constitutional self-help to access government information or protect confidential sources, for reasons I will explore further in my talk (and my paper). Fundamental shifts in the balance of power between today’s Fourth Estate and the three official branches may signal a need to reexamine the assumptions underlying the press cases of the Golden Age.



 

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on November 3, 2013 at 03:37 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Lyrissa Lidsky, Web/Tech | Permalink

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