Donald Trump’s desire to ‘loosen up’ libel laws is a disturbing sign he doesn’t understand why freedom of speech is more important than his public image.
Donald Trump has a problem with libel laws. Last month at a rally in Texas, he said he would “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations for “purposely negative and horrible and false articles.”
In a meeting with The Washington Post editorial board Monday, Trump repeated his desire to “loosen up” libel laws, but declined to say exactly how he would do so, or what he thinks the standard for libel should be.
It was understandable that the Post’s editors would want to know exactly what Trump has in mind, since he mentioned their paper at the rally in Texas, adding, “we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
When pressed, Trump appeared to favor a standard that would allow him to sue news organizations for printing things that are “wrong” or “bad.” Fred Hiatt, the Post’s editorial page editor, asked specifically how he would change the law given the Supreme Court’s 1964 ruling in Sullivan v. New York, which established the current standards for libel. What follows is the exchange they had:
TRUMP: I would just loosen them up.
RUTH MARCUS: What does that mean?
TRUMP: I’d have to get my lawyers in to tell you, but I would loosen them up. I would loosen them up. If The Washington Post writes badly about me – and they do, they don’t write good – I mean, I don’t think I get – I read some of the stories coming up here, and I said to my staff, I said, “Why are we even wasting our time? The hatred is so enormous.” I don’t know why. I mean, I do a good job. I have thousands of employees. I work hard.
I’m not looking for bad for our country. I’m a very rational person, I’m a very sane person. I’m not looking for bad. But I read articles by you, and others. And, you know, we’ve never – we don’t know each other, and the level of hatred is so incredible, I actually said, “Why am I – why am I doing this? Why am I even here?” And I don’t expect anything to happen–
RYAN: Would that be the standard then? If there is an article that you feel has hatred, or is bad, would that be the basis for libel?
TRUMP: No, if it’s wrong. If it’s wrong.
RYAN: Wrong whether there’s malice or not?
TRUMP: I mean, The Washington Post never calls me. I never had a call, “Why – why did you do this?” or “Why did you do that?” It’s just, you know, like I’m this horrible human being. And I’m not. You know, the one thing we have in common I think we all love the country. Now, maybe we come at it from different sides, but nobody ever calls me. I mean, Bob Costa calls about a political story – he called because we’re meeting senators in a little while and congressmen, supporters – but nobody ever calls.
RYAN: The reason I keep asking this is because you’ve said three times you’ve said “we are going to open up the libel laws” and when we ask you what you mean you say hatred, or bad–
TRUMP: I want to make it more fair from the side where I am, because things are said that are libelous, things are said about me that are so egregious and so wrong, and right now according to the libel laws I can do almost nothing about it because I’m a well-known person you know, etc., etc.
Trump’s comments should alarm all Americans who care about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Libel laws, after all, have a history in this country, and it would behoove Trump and his advisers to get acquainted with it.
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