By Complaining About US's 'Very Weak' Libel Laws, Trump Is Actually Shitting On Our 'Very Strong' First Amendmet
from the free-speech-is-a-thing,-buddy dept
As you likely recall, last week, lawyer Charles Harder* sent a letter on behalf of Donald Trump threatening to sue former advisor Steve Bannon, author Michael Wolff, and publisher Henry Holt for defamation having to do with the publication of Wolff’s new book about Trump. The full letter to Wolff and Henry Holt & Co. was published by the Hollywood Reporter and does not list out any statements that are claimed to be defamatory — which is often a hallmark of a totally bumptious defamation threat.
Over the weekend, during a press conference, Trump appeared to admit that he can’t actually sue for defamation. In the midst of a Trumpian ramble in response to a question about the book, he includes the following:
I consider it a work of fiction and I think it’s a disgrace that someone’s able to have something, do something like that. The libel laws are very weak in this country. If they were strong, it would be very helpful. You wouldn’t have things like that happen where you can say whatever comes to your head.
This isn’t the first time, of course, that Trump has made similar comments. Early in 2016, while on the campaign trail, he famously promised to “open up the libel laws” in order to sue his critics. And, going back even further, Trump has complained about US libel laws in reference to a case he lost, where he sued a writer who said Trump wasn’t really as rich as Trump claimed (Trump lost that lawsuit, no matter what his tweet here says):
For a brief moment, after the election, Trump seemed to realize that “opening up” libel laws might come back to bite him. In an interview with the NY Times he backtracked on his feelings towards US defamation law:
Mark Thompson: [A]fter all the talk about libel and libel laws, are you committed to the First Amendment to the Constitution?
Trump: Oh, I was hoping he wasn’t going to say that. I think you’ll be happy. I think you’ll be happy. Actually, somebody said to me on that, they said, ‘You know, it’s a great idea, softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more.’ I said, ‘You know, you’re right, I never thought about that.’ I said, ‘You know, I have to start thinking about that.’ So, I, I think you’ll be O.K. I think you’re going to be fine.
Defamation law is state-based, so the President can’t actually do anything to change those laws directly (indirectly is another story, but it’s still difficult). But, really, Thompson’s question is the key point here. He’s asking about the First Amendment of the Constitution. The Constitution that the President is under oath to uphold and defend. And yet, the President is now suddenly upset.
And let’s be clear: when the President complains about our “weak libel laws” and says he’d prefer it if people couldn’t “say whatever comes to your head” he’s not actually complaining about our weak libel laws: he’s complaining about our strong First Amendment protections of free expression. And this is particularly ridiculous when we still have Trump supporters insisting that “Donald Trump has single-handedly brought back free speech” because he’s made fun of political correctness a couple times.
However, Trump has made it quite clear that he’s not a fan of the First Amendment when it lets people criticize him. And he’s not a fan of the First Amendment when people he doesn’t like are protesting. People shouldn’t let him get off the hook by saying he’s complaining about “weak libel laws.” That’s not the problem at all. The US’s libel laws are not weak. Our First Amendment protections are strong — as they should be — and as President, he’s supposed to be defending that Constitution, not complaining about how it exposes him to mild criticism.
* Harder is a lawyer for the plaintiff in the still-ongoing lawsuit against us.