On Friday, 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump offered a terrifying glimpse into what a Trump presidency might look like when he promised that he would change the laws that protect America’s free press so that it would be easier to sue them when they write unflattering pieces.
Claiming that he would “open up” the libel laws to make it easier to sue, Trump explained,
“One of the things I’m going to do if I win, and I hope we do and we’re certainly leading. 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. 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.”
Of course, while libel is a serious matter, current laws already allow people to sue for damages when media outlets report demonstrably false information concerning a person or organization. So, what these new laws would prohibit, exactly, is a matter for speculation.
On Sunday, Trump doubled-down on his promise and repeated that he would be waging war on the media who he alleges has been unfair to him.
During a campaign stop in Huntsville, Alabama, on Sunday, Trump addressed the controversy surrounding his statement last week. He told the crowd,
“I said to the press they have to report accurately and if they don’t report accurately, we — all of us — should have the right to sue them, OK? You know what? This has nothing to do with freedom of the press, which I believe in totally.”
“But when they don’t report accurately, we should have the right to sue them to get them to report accurately and also damages, because right now, we have libel laws that don’t mean a thing. I will tell you it’s going to be tougher because they will be tougher on me now. They are so dishonest.”
Trump claimed that the media would not accurately report the size of the crowd that had gathered for Trump’s speech- a habit of the leftist mainstream media that has long sought to downplay the attendance of conservative events.
“You’re gonna leave here and you’ll say we had 32,000 people. Thirty-five standing out there — they just don’t allow more than that. And you know what’s gonna happen? You’re gonna read a story tomorrow saying, ‘Donald Trump made a speech before an OK crowd.’ They won’t even say ‘OK.’”
He added, “But here’s the story, when they write inaccurately, we have to have the right to hold them to what they write and if it’s inaccurate we have the right to get damages. Right now we get nothing. They are going to regret, all of them, all of the bad stories they write.”
Trump is correct in claiming that it can be difficult to win a libel suit- and rightfully so. Media outlets that behave unscrupulously and report false or purposely misleading information can be subject to litigation. However, mere criticism, even vicious commentary, does not fall into this category.
Though Trump is absolutely correct in asserting that the media has not treated him fairly, Trump has also demonstrated that he holds a low tolerance not just for those who slander him, but for those who dare to point-out compelling political points concerning his suitability for the Oval Office.
On February 17th, the Trump Campaign served several members of the Cruz Campaign with a cease and desist order to demand that they remove an ad playing in South Carolina. The ad depicted Donald Trump in a 1999 interview explaining his support for abortion and defining himself as pro-choice.
The letter from Trump’s attorneys demanded the removal of the ad as they defined it as libel. The Cruz Campaign responded by citing case law and noting that the use of a political opponent’s own words against him is far from any legal definition libel- a fact that is not only supported by the law, but by mere common sense as well.