Earlier last week, GOP front-runner Donald Trump boldly declared his next enemy in his seemingly never-ending battle with everything that makes America worthwhile: libel laws. Trump stated that if he was elected president he would open up US libel laws so that when the media writes negative and horrible and false articles, wealthy men like Trump can sue for damages.
Of course, Trump’s own frequent appearances on front covers of newspapers were not cited as the inspiration for this declaration.
The laws in question deal with the charge of libel, which is essentially any form of written, spoken or otherwise conveyed defamation that results in a detrimental effect towards an individual’s reputation, sense of self or business. Libel is an extremely convoluted and difficult issue. As libel has no tangible evidence — it exists in the realm of thoughts, feelings and other tangential aspects of everyday life — the rules surrounding its identification are murky at best.
One fact that is clear, however, is that libel is intrinsically tied to the First Amendment, as prohibiting or punishing “libelous action” would require a court of law (or Donald Trump) to prohibit or punish a form of speech. Through cases such as New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a judicial precedent has been set, requiring that “actual malice” be proven in libel cases.
Actual malice stipulates that the plaintiff in a libel case must prove that the publisher knew the libelous statement was false or that they exercised reckless disregard for the truth. This is very hard to prove, and rightly so. Without this layer of protection, the media would become a self-censoring entity motivated only by fear. If men like Donald Trump could sink news sources with hefty legal fees over every little statement made against him, it would have a chilling effect in newsrooms across
It is a horrific truth that members of the Republican Party — members who often march for the abolition of gun control laws, touting their Second Amendment rights — continue to support a candidate who promises to essentially tear apart the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Libel laws are a key component of our country’s commitment to freedom of expression. Freedom of speech is the First Amendment — the first one. If Trump can attack the basis by which we define ourselves as a nation without even the slightest drop in polls, it is terrifying to imagine where the American people will draw the line, if they ever do.
This article initially appeared online and in print in the March 7th edition of Washington Square News.