Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
President Donald Trump is furious about the release of famed former Watergate reporter Bob Woodward’s new book about his administration, Fear: Trump in the White House. The book depicts the White House in a state of “nervous breakdown,” with Trump openly slurring his own Cabinet, calling for war and assassination of foreign dictators, and his own aides exasperated with his stupidity as they try to advise him about his legal troubles.
On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted his displeasure, and ending with a frustrated plea for “Washington politicians” to “change libel laws.”
Isn’t it a shame that someone can write an article or book, totally make up stories and form a picture of a person that is literally the exact opposite of the fact, and get away with it without retribution or cost. Don’t know why Washington politicians don’t change libel laws?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2018
Trump has frequently said he would like to change what he believes to be “libel laws” that give people free reign to say what he alleges are malicious falsehoods about him, including on the campaign trail in 2016.
Unfortunately for him, however, the only “libel law” that prevents him from suing people who criticize him is the First Amendment, which protects the fundamental right to freedom of the press.
The issue of whether public officials can sue the media for libel was tackled by the Supreme Court in the 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan, in which an Alabama city commissioner tried to sue the Times for minor errors in an advertisement they published in defense of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Court ruled public officials cannot sue journalists for libel without proving they knew, or reasonably should have known, the information is false and tangibly harmful — which is very difficult to do.
The Court had good reason for their decision. At the time, lawsuits against newspapers were a common tactic by Southern politicians to block reporters from covering the civil rights movement. In effect, the lawsuits were a means of censorship — a power Trump and his supporters seem to openly long to have.
The GOP is increasingly revealing that their goal goes deeper than preventing libel. In a recent poll, a plurality of 43 percent of Republicans said Trump “should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” Meanwhile, Trump and the GOP are leading a crusade against social media platforms, claiming with no evidence that their content algorithms are “biased” in a transparent attempt to pressure them to prioritize conservative traffic.
In the meantime, though, the law is well settled on whether politicians can use libel lawsuits to intimidate the press. Whether Trump likes it or not, the answer is no.
Matthew Chapman is a video game designer, science fiction author, and political reporter from Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter @fawfulfan.