Feb 26, 2016

Trump and Libel: More of the Same

Presidential candidate Donald Trump's latest policy pronouncement is that if he is elected he will "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's statement has already gotten a fair amount of reaction (or maybe it's just that I'm well plugged in to the media law cognoscenti). But his statement of what he thinks the law should be is actually a statement of what the law currently is

Under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan and the cases that came after it, public figures like Trump can win libel cases if they prove that the statement at issue was false, that it actually hurt their reputation, and that it was made with what the courts call "actual malice": that the person or entity that made the statement either knew that the statement was untrue, or made the statement with "reckless disregard" for whether it was true or not.

Under this standard, if Trump can prove that a statement about him was made "purposely," and that the statement was "negative," "horrible" and "false," he could indeed "sue them and win lots of money." 

Unfortunately for Trump, he has not done well when he actually has sued for libel. He has not followed through on several other threats to sue for comments about him.

So Trump's pronouncement on libel is more of the same: more bluster from the candidate, and no actual difference from existing libel law.

Note: Erik Wemple of The Washington Post makes the same point.


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