Defamation: Trump and libel law

Trump appears to believe in a captive press, and his comments on libel evince a juvenile understanding of both the Constitution and jurisprudence.

Source, Margaret Talbot: Trump and the Truth: The “Lying” Media – The New Yorker

I’m a bit late here–this terrific Margaret Talbot article was published September 28—but it’s interesting to read now, after that second debate (Talbot wrote it after the first debate). (My brother, an inveterate newspaper reader, used to catch up on his pile of newspapers while practicing–he’s a guitarist. He said it was fascinating to read stories and opinions about news events months after the events, to see what held up as significant over time and whose comments were now glaringly idiotic.) (He no longer has piles of newspapers: he reads entirely on line nowadays.)

The entire article is worth reading but just to induce salivation, here are two key paragraphs from the Talbot article. The first concerns the legal basis for limiting libel lawsuits against the press–prompted by Trump’s claim that after he’s elected he’ll “loosen up” libel laws so he can sue media that have criticized him–and the second demonstrates Trump’s ignorance of libel law:

In the landmark 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court laid out the modern understanding of libel law, establishing firm protections for the press. Sullivan made it much harder for a public figure to sue a newspaper for libel or defamation, compelling a plaintiff to show that a publication had “actual malice”—the knowledge that what it was publishing was false—or that it had substantial doubts about the truth of what it what publishing. The Court set the bar as high as it did because it saw a threat to democracy in libel laws. “Freedom to discuss public affairs and public officials is unquestionably . . . the kind of speech the First Amendment was primarily designed to keep within the area of free discussion,” Justice Hugo Black wrote in his concurring opinion. “To punish the exercise of this right to discuss public affairs or to penalize it through libel judgments is to abridge or shut off discussion of the very kind most needed.” The Sullivan ruling has been widely accepted, across the political spectrum, ever since. Even if a President Trump did have the opportunity to appoint several Supreme Court Justices, he would be hard-pressed to find a set who’d overturn it.

Trump’s comments on libel have evinced a juvenile understanding of both the Constitution and of jurisprudence. When Fred Ryan, the publisher of the [Washington] Post, asked Trump if, by opening up libel law, he meant weakening standards like malice, Trump said nothing to indicate that he was familiar with either the legal sense of that term or with the Sullivan decision. “Yeah,” he said. “I think I would get a little bit away from malice without having to get too totally away. Look, I think many of the stories about me are written badly.” More frightening, though, is the way that Trump has spoken about the law as an instrument of personal vengeance—his way of getting back at his critics and making them pay. “We’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before,” he said, talking about reporters, at a February rally in Texas.

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