According to Dictionary.com, libel is “defamation by written or printed words, pictures, or in any form other than by spoken words or gestures; the act or crime of publishing it; a formal written declaration or statement, as one containing the allegations of a plaintiff or the grounds of a charge.” Anyone can be sued for libel, but journalists are frequently targeted if they misrepresent an individual in the news. In 1964, during the New York Times v. Sullivan the Supreme Court ruled that public officials needed proof that the information presented in the news was intentionally malicious. In this instances, a pro-civil rights campaign was showing how police mistreated African-Americans.
The police chief, L.B. Sullivan, sued the paper claiming that it was libelous. At first, he won his case locally. But because of the connection to civil rights and the potential ramifications, the Supreme Court took the case and ruled in favor of the paper. This decision protected free speech and freedom of press, making it pivotal in American journalism. News is most effective when it can present the facts accurately, without pressures from political groups or powerful individuals to sway the story.
If L.B. Sullivan had won the case in the Supreme Court, it would be easy for public officials, government leaders and high-profile citizens to alter the news so that they look good in the public eye. Protesters, like those in the civil rights or, more currently, gay rights movements would have an even more difficult time expressing their beliefs and airing injustices.