Freedom of Press Tumbles in Ratings

Article excerpt

Byline: Kyu Ho Youm For The Register-Guard

Our country does not lead the world in freedom of speech and the press. According to the 2014 World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders, a free press organization in Paris, our nation stands at No. 46 out of 180.

The United States' 13-spot plunge from 2013's rankings is attributable to our government's relentless pursuit of whistle-blowers, its secret seizure of Associated Press phone records and its subpoenas against journalists.

Nonetheless, we should not be overly pessimistic about our enduring free press. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark free press case, New York Times vs. Sullivan. On March 9, 1964, the Supreme Court held that Americans have a right to criticize the government and government officials with no fear.

The Sullivan decision has made criticism of the government part of the fundamental rules of our national life.

"Debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open," the court declared unanimously in Sullivan, although such debate is often "vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp" when targeting government and public officials.

The revolutionary Supreme Court case has remade the First Amendment's protection of freedom of the press. It enabled our civil rights movement in the 1960s, the publication of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, the investigative reporting on President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal in the 1970s, and more recently, The Washington Post's reporting on Edward Snowden's whistle- blowing on the National Security Agency's mass surveillance.

Not surprisingly, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the London- based Guardian, said on March 7: "I think America has some of the best newspapers and journalists in the world."

The Sullivan case began in late March 1960, when an advertisement titled "Heed Their Rising Voice" was published in The New York Times. The advertisement was critical of Southern officials' violent handling of civil rights protests. L.B. Sullivan, the Montgomery, Ala., police commissioner, sued the Times (and others) for defamation.

Sullivan lost and The New York Times won. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the Times had no "actual malice" in publishing the challenged advertisement. Under the constitutional actual malice rule, public officials must prove that allegedly defamatory statements about them were published with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth when the statements related to a matter of public interest.

The so-called Sullivan doctrine aimed to protect citizen- critics - both individual and institutional - from chilling libel lawsuits by providing them with a breathing space of the kind that their public debate needs to thrive. Over the years, actual malice, more often than not, has been questioned in and outside the courtroom about its actual or perceived overprotection of freedom of speech at the expense of an individual's reputation. …