Thanks to the Sullivan decision, it is indeed hard for public figures to win libel suits. They have to prove that something false was said about them, that it harmed their reputation and that the writer acted with “actual malice.” That last term is misleading, as it has nothing to do with the ordinary meaning of malice in the sense of spite or ill will.
To prove actual malice under the Sullivan decision, a libel plaintiff must show that the writer knew the disputed statement was false or had acted with “reckless disregard.” That second phrase is also a term of art. The Supreme Court has said that it requires proof that the writer entertained serious doubts about the truth of the statement.
Justice Thomas questioned those standards.
“There appears to be little historical evidence suggesting that the New York Times actual-malice rule flows from the original understanding of the First or Fourteenth Amendment,” he wrote.