The Supreme Court did not add any new cases to its docket on Tuesday morning. In a list of orders from the justices’ private conference last week, the justices denied review in approximately 180 cases – including one asking the court to overrule one of its landmark decisions on freedom of the press.
In Blankenship v. NBCUniversal, the justices once again turned down, with a concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, a request to reconsider the court’s 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, which requires a public figure to prove that a defamatory statement was made “actual malice” – that is, “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
The appeal was filed by Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, who in 2015 was convicted of conspiring to violate federal safety standards before a 2010 explosion at a West Virginia mine that killed 29 people. After his release from prison, Blankenship announced that he intended to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Joe Manchin.
Blankenship filed a defamation lawsuit in federal court, accusing news organizations and journalists who covered his Senate campaign of defamation. Specifically, he contended, they had labeled him a felon in their coverage, even though his one-year prison sentence was not long enough for his offense to qualify as a felony.
Both the district court and the court of appeals ruled for the news organizations, finding that there was not enough evidence of the kind of actual malice required for Blankenship to win on a defamation claim. Instead, the court of appeals explained, “the record does not contain evidence that the commentators and journalists responsible for the statements were anything more than confused about how to describe a person who served a year in prison for a federal offense.”
Blankenship came to the Supreme Court earlier this year, asking the justices to overturn their decision in Sullivan. The justices turned him down on Tuesday in a one-sentence order without explanation, but Thomas penned a brief concurring opinion. He argued that although Blankenship’s case might not be an appropriate one in which to consider the question because West Virginia law would also impose an actual-malice standard to his claims, the court should take up the question soon in a different case.