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Sarah Waychoff
By Sarah Waychoff April 20, 2017

Trump stalls on promise to open up libel laws

President Donald Trump promised to take his issues with mainstream media coverage of him to another level during the campaign.

Trump said multiple times that he would be in favor of changing the libel laws. Trump called out major news outlets at a Feb. 26, 2016, rally in Fort Worth, Texas, saying as president, he would "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 brought it up again once in office. He went after the "failing" New York Times after the newspaper reported on intercepted communications between Russian officials and associates of Trump's campaign.

"The failing @nytimes has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change libel laws?" he tweeted March 30.

We haven't seen Trump propose any specific action at this point.

It would take quite a lot to change the country's rules on libel.

The 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan required public figures who are suing news organizations for libel to prove that false information was published knowingly and with malicious intent.

There isn't one single law that could be changed, other than the First Amendment and the protections it gives. Libel laws vary state by state, and there isn't a federal libel law.

In order for Trump to change the libel law, he would need to overturn the Supreme Court case. As we have previously mentioned, Trump also could lead an effort to amend the Constitution, but that doesn't seem likely either.  

We rate this promise Stalled.

Allison Graves
By Allison Graves January 20, 2017

Trump says he wants to 'open up libel laws'

Donald Trump threw a lot of punches at the press during his presidential campaign, calling journalists "dishonest" and accusing the media of conspiring against him.

Behind the rhetoric was a threat to "open up" libel laws and make it easier for prominent figures like himself to sue news corporations.

"I'm going to 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 said at a February rally in Fort Worth, Texas. "We're going to open up those libel laws."

Achieving this campaign pledge is possible, but unlikely to gain the support it needs to achieve.


Trump wants to "open up" libel laws to make it easier to sue the press.

On more than one occasion, he accused the press of writing falsehoods, rigging the election against him and being corrupt.


Public figures can win a libel suit against a media corporation only if the court finds the information was published with a legal standard known as "actual malice."

The actual malice precedent was established by the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan. It holds that the First Amendment generally protects journalists against false statements about public figures and officials. The case does not protect statements made with actual malice, which means a  person knowingly published false information or published information with "reckless disregard" of the truth.

Trump would need the Supreme Court to overturn Times vs. Sullivan.

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said that would be "almost impossible," even if Trump appoints a fairly conservative judge to the Supreme Court.

"The reality is that individuals of all viewpoints benefit from the protection of the actual malice standard," Kirtley said. "It really isn't a liberal/conservative/Democrat/Republican divide."

Trump also could lead an effort to amend the Constitution, but that doesn't seem likely either.


The press in some states is protected by an even stronger standard.

"In some states, the state constitution's 'free press' clause has already been construed to provide even greater protection than the First Amendment," Kirtley said.   

Lyrissa Lidsky, a University of Florida media law professor, said building broad support to provide less freedom of expression will be hard because the issue cuts across partisan lines.

"Many people understand that freedom of expression cannot and should not depend upon the vagaries of which party is in power at the moment," she said. "And it isn't just the press that benefit from the protections of our libel laws. Anyone who posts, tweets, or speaks about public issues benefits from the constitutional protections against libel suits."

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