This is a less than complete summary of a most complicated subject. This summary hits the high spots and outlines many of the cases.
It is accurate to say, however, that a once favorable situation regarding libel as a result of U.S. Supreme Court rulings has been eroded as a result of later Supreme Court rulings, especially in those cases involving public figures.
The establishment by the court of less stringent conditions under which a person may bring libel actions has resulted in increased challenges to the media’s right to report controversial news. This is often referred to as a chilling effect. The effect is real.
This is not to say that the Supreme Court never rules favorably toward the media. But it is clear that in many instances the court has shown a lack of sensitivity toward free and robust debate in recent times.
This has given the media increased responsibility. Now, along with avoiding libel, the media are put in a situation of having to defend the concept of a free press to the public and in the courts.
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the classic The Common Law in 1881. This quote is from the 1949 edition by Little, Brown and Co., the 43rd printing, at page 36:
What has been said will explain the failure of all theories which consider the law only from its formal side, whether they attempt to deduce the corpus from a priori postulates, or fall into the humbler error of supposing the science of the law to reside in the elegantia juris, or logical cohesion of part with part.
The truth is, that the law is, always approaching, and never reaching, consistency. It is forever adopting new principles from life at one end, and it always retains old ones from history at the other, which have not yet been absorbed or sloughed off. It will become entirely consistent only when it ceases to grow.
Many communication law textbooks are available that explain these and other libel cases in detail. The book that best tells the history of the Sullivan case and later decisions by the Supreme Court is Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis. The book was published in 1991 by Random House. Lewis is also author of Gideon’s Trumpet.