Donald Trump said back in February that if elected president he will change the nation’s libel laws in order to make it easier to sue news organizations. He’s really angry at the New York Times over its front page story about his past relations with women. He better get used to this. He’s about the see much more of the same as the media that has coddled him up to this point goes into full scale attack mode. It’s rumored that the Washington Post has assigned 20 reporters to go full time digging up dirt on Donald Trump.
“One of the things I’m going to do if I win… I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said during a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.
“We’re going to open up those libel laws so when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected,” he said. “We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
Pssst, Mr. Trump: Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court, in the First Amendment free speech case of Sullivan v. New York Times, said that a public figure like you cannot sue news organizations for slander or libel [actually you can still sue, it’s just difficult to win] unless you can prove the news outlet published a falsehood with actual malice, i.e., knowing it is false or with reckess disregard of it’s truth or falsity. [At common law malice was the state of mind that needed to be proved to sustain a charge for murder, malice in the law has been described as having a “malignant heart.”]
You can still sue anybody at any time for anything, but since you are a public figure if you sue for slander or libel you have a very high burden of proof. During the Viet Nam War it was no secret that Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes were against the war and engaged in hit-piece, highly slanted reporting. One report claimed that General William Westmoreland had withheld accurate U.S. casualty figures from the public. He claimed they were deliberately lying and brought suit. After and epic struggle he was forced to settle for nothing. The burden of proving actual malice is just too difficult.
But hey Trump, you are not the only public strongman with a fragile ego:
A sixty-two year-old woman was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in jail for carrying a banner which called Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “indecent” during a protest in 2015.
A report by Turkish daily, Hürriyet, said on Tuesday that the woman carried a banner which read “We turn our backs on indecent Erdoğan,” on June 3, 2015, in reference to Erdoğan’s remarks during a rally in Iğdır in the same month.
Addressing a group of women who protested him by turning their backs while he was passing the street with a convoy, Erdoğan had said “ over there… a group… excuse me… my decency does not allow me to say… [They] are making a sign by turning their backs.”
Didim 3rd Criminal Court of First Instance, which sentenced the woman to jail time, said that the woman carried out a concrete action which could hurt the complainant’s dignity by carrying the banner in public.
More than 1,500 cases were opened against people for “insulting the president” since Erdoğan came to office in 2014.
So here’s the deal Trump, if you want to punish people who criticize you maybe you should go run for president of Turkey. There’s also another option if you can’t take criticism. Don’t be a public figure. Oh, too late for that. You already made that decision and it’s not revocable. Besides, you can still mean tweet everyone you don’t like. Isn’t that what you think a real statesmen does?
I guess there is one other option as well. Trump could just defend himself, something he’s good at [except for the nasty name calling which doesn’t work so well], and stop making empty threats to bring suits he cannot win. He should also stop threatening to “open up libel law.” It’s a Constitutional free speech issue and most people believe the Supreme Court came up with a pretty good balance between the First Amendment and libelous reporting on public figures. We want people to be able to speak their mind freely because government is a powerful force and a constant menace to the liberty rights of free people. We don’t want to be like Turkey, or even like the U.K. where the courts are clogged with libel and slander cases because the libel laws are tilted in favor of plaintiffs of all stripes. We want free and open debate on social and poliitical issues without fear of reprisal. The remedy for false and offensive speech is more speech, not less.