The Supreme Court has turned down a request to revisit a decades-old libel ruling, despite a dissent from Justice Clarence Thomas. This morning, the court denied a petition to hear Coral Ridge Ministries Media v. Southern Poverty Law Center, in which an evangelical Christian ministry accused the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) of falsely designating it as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.
If it had overturned the ruling, the Supreme Court would have greatly increased the odds of public figures winning libel cases in the future. Instead, the decision delays (but likely won’t end) a long-running push to expand the scope of defamation law.
Coral Ridge Ministries Media v. SPLC hinges on the “actual malice” standard — a protection that means public figures must show a false statement was made knowingly or with reckless disregard for its truth in order to win a defamation case. In 2021, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined the SPLC hadn’t acted with actual malice when it added Coral Ridge Ministries (also known as Truth in Action and D. James Kennedy Ministries) to its “Hate Map.” Coral Ridge Ministries asked the Supreme Court to reexamine its ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the case that established the “actual malice” standard in the first place.
Coral Ridge Ministries Media v. SPLC might not have ended with a victory for Coral Ridge Ministries even with the standard overturned because a lower court also wasn’t convinced its inclusion on the “hate map” was a false factual statement rather than an opinion. But it could have dramatically changed the balance of power in US libel cases, making it far easier for powerful figures — like former president Donald Trump, who expressed a desire to “open up libel laws” and has filed multiple suits against news outlets — to win lawsuits. Now, it’s off the table — but it’s almost certainly not the last such case that will reach the Supreme Court.