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Celebrity trials amplify America’s war over free speech

Celebrity trials amplify America’s war over free speech

A spate of high-profile lawsuits is giving real legal weight to America’s cultural and political debate over free speech.

Why it matters: As conservatives rail against perceptions of censorship and progressives clamor for tighter restrictions on misinformation, the courts are where the real-world rules of the road get written.

State of play: The legal battles around free speech have “definitely been ignited,” said Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment specialist at Freedom Forum, a free speech nonprofit.

  • There’s a growing number of people “with money and an axe to grind that are realizing they can score public and political points by bringing these lawsuits,” he said.

Driving the news: Johnny Depp’s defamation suit against Amber Heard — which he ultimately won — became a polarizing cultural flashpoint, especially on TikTok.

  • Kyle Rittenhouse — the young adult who gained infamy after shooting three people, killing two, in Kenosha, Wisconsin — said Depp’s victory has inspired him to file a defamation suit of his own.
  • Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy said he was suing Insider and one of its writers earlier this year over an article that alleged he took videos of women during sexual acts without their consent.
  • Former Alaska Gov. and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, meanwhile, lost her defamation suit against The New York Times, after a court said she had failed to prove that the paper acted with “actual malice” toward her — the high bar that defamation claims have to clear.
  • Former President Trump also forced the courts to grapple with new First Amendment questions. A federal appeals court ruled in 2020 that Trump couldn’t block people on Twitter.

Between the lines: The share of Americans who feel their free speech rights are less secure is falling — from 56% in 2016 to 46% today.

  • Democrats are twice as likely to say they feel their free speech rights are protected compared to Republicans and Independents, according to a January Knight Foundation poll.

What’s next: Two Supreme Court justices — Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch — have said the court should consider overturning New York Times v. Sullivan.

  • Thomas dissented this past week as the court turned away a fresh challenge to the landmark precedent. “New York Times and its progeny have allowed media organizations and interest groups to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, the court declined to revisit Sullivan, and has also rejected other, similar challenges in recent years. As the high court sticks to its precedent, and lower courts hand down rulings like those that prevented the president from blocking people online, free speech is still protected.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s last name.

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