Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson began the War on Poverty and proclaimed his vision for a Great Society, civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution paved the way toward steep troop escalations in Southeast Asia. But the event of 1964 that allowed Americans to acquire a deeper understanding of all these events — and of the dramatic events that followed in Vietnam and Watergate — was a decision rendered in the whispery confines of the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court.
A half-century ago on March 9, 1964, the justices handed down their unanimous ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan. The thumbnail interpretation of this decision — that public figures would have to prove “actual malice” to win a libel case — triggered a tremor in legal offices, judicial chambers and newsrooms from coast to coast.
Fifty years on, we see that the significance of the decision was its establishment of a single national standard in libel cases, one that frees the press to do the job the Constitution entrusts to it and protects the press against state incursions on press freedoms.
Today we take for granted the vigorous press this decision produced and preserved. On a national level, it permitted The Washington Post to conduct its landmark Watergate investigation. On a regional level, it has permitted newspapers like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to uncover serious abuses in police overtime and present a groundbreaking series of stories detailing the pinions of power in our community — both prepared and published without fear that arcane libel laws designed to protect the king and Church of England from critics would be applied to us, punishing our daring and silencing our writers.
We are the executive editor and the outside counsel of the Post-Gazette and, far from Washington and the great dramas of war and national politics, we and our readers are the daily beneficiaries of this ruling.