Constitutional law attorney Floyd Abrams and University of Tennessee professor Glenn Reynolds discussed the definition of libel. They spoke about the differences between broad criticism, slander and libel.
This lesson has students explore the impact of the New York Times v. Sullivan Supreme Court case and how it impacts libel laws and the press. Students will view videos of legal and journalism experts discussing the background of the case and how its precedent impacts freedom of the press. Using this information, they will analyze arguments for and against overturning this ruling.
This lesson offers several options for you to use with your students whether you are teaching in class, using a hybrid model, or engaging through distance learning. It can be completed in steps as a class or independently by students.
Each activity, video and handout included in the lesson can be linked to a online discussion board or learning management system. You can also save and share the following Google handout for students to use with this lesson.
Handout: Libel Laws and the Press: New York Times v. Sullivan (Google Doc)
By making a copy of this Google Doc, you can adjust the instructions to meet the needs of your class and provide that copy to your students. Your students can also make a copy and complete the assignments digitally in the space provided.
Begin class by having students brainstorm answers to the following questions. Depending on time and circumstance, teachers can use these questions as a Think-Pair-Share activity to engage students in discussion.
What are limits to your first amendment rights?
Address any misconceptions from the warm-up activity.
To introduce the concept of libel, have the students view the following video clip. From this video clip, they should answer the guiding questions and develop a working definition of libel. Review the students’ responses before moving on to the exploration activity.
Video Clip 1: What is Libel? (2:22)
What does Floyd Abrams say is necessary for a libel suit?
What is meant by defamatory? Why is this necessary for a libel suit?
Explain the difference libel and slander.
Once students have a foundational understanding of libel, they will explore the Constitutional basis and impact of the New York Times v. Sullivan Supreme Court case. They will view the two video clips and answer the guiding questions listed below. As they view these video clips, they should keep in mind the arguments for and against this ruling.
In addition to answering the questions, they can also use the chart on the handout to provide information supporting and opposing the New York Times v. Sullivan ruling.
Video Clip 2: New York Times v. Sullivan (2:14)
Summarize the events preceding the New York Times v. Sullivan Supreme Court Case.
What is meant by malice?
How did this case decision affect journalists, and “revolutionize libel law?”
According to Ms. Dalglish and Mr. Levine, how did Times v. Sullivan, along with other subsequent cases, affect the Civil Rights Movement?
Video Clip 3: The Impact of New York Times v. Sullivan (5:03)
Describe the Supreme Court’s decision in this case.
How did New York Times v. Sullivan protect the freedom of the press?
Prior to New York Times v. Sullivan, how were libel lawsuits used to silence press coverage?
How did later court cases expand the impact of New York Times v. Sullivan?
What do you think the difference is between public officials and public figures?
Review the students’ responses and answer any questions about the events and impact of the case.
Following that, students will apply what they learned about the case and apply it to a recent call for the New York Times v. Sullivan precedent to be overturned. To do this, they will view the following video clip and take notes on the arguments supporting and opposing the ruling using the chart on the handout. Using this information, they will later answer the question: Should the ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan precedent be overturned?
Video Clip 4: Challenges to the New York Times v. Sullivan Decision (5:49)
To demonstrate their learning, students will answer the prompt below. This can be answered with a written response or any of the discussion activities found on the C-SPAN Classroom Deliberation site.
Libel Suit Current Events- Find a news article highlighting a libel suit. After reading this article provide the following information:
Title, author, source, and date of article
Summary of article
How this news story relates to libel and New York Times v. Sullivan?
Should “public figures” be included in the precedent set by New York Times v. Sullivan?
How is malice difficult to prove in libel suits?
How does the precedent in New York Times v. Sullivan expand protections for the press?
Do you agree with Professor Reynolds when he describes the media as a “monoculture”?