6 Monumental Media Law Cases for Journalists

Posted August 31, 2016 by 

Media law in America is about as old as the country itself, with freedom of the press outlined clearly in the Constitution. Throughout history, various media law cases have offered further clarity on how freedom of the press works. These cases have defined how American journalists do their jobs, affecting all eras of journalism and continuing to change today.

Near v. Minnesota

The first notable case regarding media law came more than a century after the Constitution first outlined freedom of the press. Near v. Minnesota was the first case to cover the concept of prior restraint, or censorship imposed by the government before publication in the media. The 1931 case involved Minnesota newspaper publisher J.M. Near, who was banned from publishing, selling or distributing his paper due to complaints of it being a public nuisance. The U.S. Supreme Courtfound that except in rare cases, any form of censorship is unconstitutional.

Branzburg v. Hayes

The only case where the Supreme Court has considered the concept of reporter’s privilege, Branzburg v. Hayes in 1972 found that reporters cannot avoid testifying before a criminal grand jury. Paul Branzburg of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote two articles concerning drug use in Kentucky that did not identify manufacturers and users of hashish. Law enforcement personnel subpoenaed Branzburg to name his confidential sources. He refused, citing reporter’s privilege, and was held in contempt. The case made its way to the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that “requiring reporters to disclose confidential information to grand juries served as ‘compelling’ and ‘paramount’ state interest and did not violate the First Amendment,” the Illinois Institute of Technology’s law school explains.

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

This critical case created the “actual malice” standard to be met before reporting can be considered defamation or libel. The case began when The New York Times carried a full-page ad soliciting funds to defend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an Alabama court case in March 1960. The ad inaccurately described the actions of police departments, attributing some to the wrong force. L.B. Sullivan, public safety commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, sued the Times for defamation, despite not having been named in the ad. Under Alabama law, Sullivan did not have to prove that he was harmed. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials. It made clear the only exception was “actual malice,” when statements were known to be false. Given that the Timesretracted the incorrect statements, Sullivan’s case for defamation collapsed.

New York Times Co. v. United States

Known as the “Pentagon Papers Case,” The New York Times posited that the Nixon administration was preventing the Times and Washington Post from publishing classified materials regarding American activity in Vietnam. The Nixon administration argued that the reporting would compromise national security. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the Times and Post, saying that the vague word “security” could not be used as a reason for violating the First Amendment. This case has allowed journalists to pursue classified information in the interest of informing the American people.

Blumenthal v. Drudge

On Aug. 10, 1997, Matt Drudge, owner and operator of the conservative online publication called the Drudge Report, published negative statements about Sidney Blumenthal, a former White House assistant. Despite Drudge retracting and apologizing for the post, Blumenthal and his wife filed a defamation lawsuit against him and America Online, which was hosting the Drudge Report at the time. The court found that America Online was not liable but refused to dismiss the case against Drudge. Blumenthal settled, citing financial limitations to continue the case, but the court’s decision to deny dismissal showed that defamation laws apply on the internet.

Obsidian Finance Group v. Crystal Cox

This case also concerned online defamation. It involved Obsidian Finance Group, which sued blogger Crystal Cox for accusing the company and its founder, Kevin Padrick, of corrupt and fraudulent conduct. The court found that while the majority of the posts were opinion, there were some that contained factual assertions and were thus defamatory. This was the first time a blogger had been found guilty of defamation. Because Cox was a blogger and not a journalist, she was not protected by Oregon’s media shield laws.

Understanding the Importance of Media Law Cases

Media law will remain a critical part of journalism. At Concordia University Texas, we offer students comprehensive training to begin a career in the rewarding field of communication. With our fully online Bachelor of Arts in Communication, you can pursue a career in journalism, public relations and other lines of work. Whether you’re looking for a fresh start or want to earn a new credential, we can help you maintain your personal and work responsibilities while pursuing your goals.

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