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Sunday, February 28, 2016

More on libel, New York Times, and Donald Trump

I still do not believe we are in any danger of having President Trump open up our libel laws, but let me add a few more thoughts. After all, as Ronald Collins reminds us, this is SOP for Trump--in September, his attorney threatened a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Club for Growth over ads critical of Trump.

NYT v. Sullivan arose in a period in which state officials were using civil libel suits to create something akin to seditious libel--a prohibition on criticizing government, government officials, and government policy. Heed Their Rising Voices triggered five defamation suits (including Sullivan's), seeking a total of $ 3 million; the Times was a defendant in lawsuits throughout the state seeking more than $ 300 million. Until recently, my instinct would have been that no modern-day public official, particularly a national figure such as the President (or someone aspiring to that office), would sue or threaten to sue his critics. Part of that is driven by NYT--that doctrine exists precisely to stop public officials from suing their critics. But another part is that suing or threatening to sue would make an elected official look weak, greedy, and ineffectual--his feelings are being hurt, so he is running to the principal to complain, rather than responding in the public debate.

But Trump turns every bit of conventional wisdom on its head. Rather than seeing a libel lawsuit as making him appear weak, Trump supporters would seem to look at it as a sign of strength, that he is a fighter and willing to stand up to evil newspapers. So Trump may unwittingly be showing why NYT is so important and why it is not going away anytime soon.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 28, 2016 at 06:20 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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