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The Intersection of Libel Law and Politics

Since its beginning, the American Republic has debated sedition, free speech, and protection of reputation. After we cut our British roots we ensured our right to criticize our leaders, the politicians who control our government. The British crown demanded loyalty of its printers, but American courts would not tolerate such prosecutions as the notion of a truly free press emerged. 

Today, we are witnessing an intense intersection of politics and libel law unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1960s. Politicians are suing for libel damages and being sued. The current overlap of politics and libel includes a push by the president of the United States to change libel law. Those who seek change, including President Trump, say they want to make it easier for plaintiffs to prevail and collect damages. Careful what you wish for, though, because such change would ease the path for plaintiffs seeking to collect damages from public officials such as Donald Trump.

Heading into the 2020 election, the Trump campaign filed three lawsuits in a 10-day period against mainstream media.

Legal scholars and pundits have opined that Trump’s pending libel complaints against The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN are weak or even dead on arrival. These analysts point out that Trump’s campaign is seeking damages due to political opinions, which are protected speech under the First Amendment.

As a life-long public figure and now public official, Trump (his re-election campaign is the plaintiff) must prove that the media defendants acted with actual malice, that is, reckless disregard for the truth or that they published information knowing it was false. The actual malice standard is well established through the First Amendment by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964.

Win or lose in court, the president’s libel lawsuits also are political messaging, dramatic actions that complement his anti-press rhetoric. The stories about the libel suits are arguably more effective than the libel suits themselves in the president’s battles to discredit the mainstream press. In addition to political messaging, libel claims – even when they fail in court -- can be a form of punishment.

Historical Context

Presidential involvement in libel litigation is rare, but not unprecedented. President Theodore Roosevelt was irritated by published allegations of corruption in the sale of the Panama Canal. He pushed the Justice Department to prosecute publisher Joseph Pulitzer and other newspapermen for criminal libel. Courts later quashed indictments.

After his presidency, Roosevelt was sued for libel by a New York political figure (William Barnes) who objected to being called corrupt by Roosevelt. The jury trial, in Syracuse in 1915, was grist for Dan Abrams’ book “Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense.” The jury ruled in Roosevelt’s favor; he seemed to thrive in legal combat, the book says.

Fifteen years ago, there was speculation about the prospect of President George W. Bush suing the National Enquirer. The Enquirer published a report based on unnamed sources who claimed that pressures of the job led Bush to drink, even though he said he gave up alcohol on his 40th birthday. 

“The president would be exceptionally ill-advised to file suit over this story, even if he knows . . . it’s false,” wrote First Amendment lawyer Julie Hilden in 2005.

She suggested such a suit would likely fail because its “actual malice” claim appeared to be weak. Plus, she warned, the suit would expose the president to civil discovery. Bush did not sue.

After the 1964 election, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater successfully sued Fact Magazine and its publisher for an article questioning Goldwater's mental fitness to hold office (Goldwater v. Ginzburg). Federal courts found that Goldwater’s complaint met the actual malice standard, awarding $75,000. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 1970, declined to hear the case.

Trump's Track Record

In seven earlier speech-related cases filed by Donald Trump or his companies before he became president, four were dismissed on the merits, two were voluntarily withdrawn, and one was an arbitration won by Trump by default. These findings were compiled by Susan E. Seager, a First Amendment attorney who teaches media law at University of Southern California. Indeed, this appears to be a way of life for the highly litigious Trump, who has been involved in approximately 4,000 legal battles over the past 30 years, both as a plaintiff and defendant. An exhaustive analysis by USA Today detailed those seven libel cases where he initiated the lawsuits and seven more where he was named defendant. These don’t even include the threats of suits, the so-called “I’ll sue you” effect that can too often chill speech.

A common thread of these cases is the pursuit of jumbo damages. Trump alleged $5 billion in damages (in New Jersey state court) because author Timothy O’Brien and his book publishers cast doubt on the size of the real estate mogul’s wealth. Trump lost after five years of litigation but assessed the outcome this way to The Washington Post: “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees but they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make [O’Brien’s] life miserable, which I’m happy about.”

Judicial Nominations

Judicial appointments are a priority for the Trump Administration. Interestingly, a judge nominated by the president in 2018 dismissed (with prejudice) a case filed by a Republican congressman.

On August 5, 2020, U.S. District Court Judge C.J. Williams of the Northern District of Iowa dismissed Congressman Devin Nunes’ defamation complaint against Esquire writer Ryan Lizza and its publisher. The judge said published criticism of Nunes (R-CA) was not actionable (Devin G. Nunes v. Ryan Lizza and Hearst Magazine Media, Inc).

Interestingly, part of this recent case deals directly with President Trump and his tweets. I’ll quote Judge Willliams’ opinion regarding Trump’s tweet that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower:”

First, to the extent defendants assert President Trump “made up” the tweet,

the statement is not of an concerning plaintiff (Nunes). Second, plaintiff has

not alleged that the statement is false. Third, even if the statement is factually inaccurate, the statement that plaintiff’s theory about surveillance of the Trump campaign “began” with President Trump’s tweet is not defamatory.

Other Political Cases

Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate in 2008, sued The New York Times for defamation, claiming that a 2017 editorial maliciously associated her with a mass shooting that injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). A federal judge dismissed her case, but a 3-0 panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, thus reviving the case (Sarah Palin v. The New York Times).

Besides the characters involved – and the reversal in federal court – this case is interesting because The New York Times published a correction: “An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that a link existed between political incitement and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established.”

To prevail, Palin – a public figure -- must show that the newspaper acted with actual malice.

Meanwhile, a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” Summer Zervos sued President Trump in 2017 claiming she was defamed because candidate Trump said her allegations of his sexual misconduct in 2007 were lies. In 2019, a 3-2 majority of a New York State appeals court rejected the argument from Trump’s counsel that a sitting president cannot be sued in state court (Zervos v. Trump).

In addition to its spotlight on the Supremacy Clause, the Zervos lawsuit also examines the boundaries of opinion-as-defense in defamation disputes. Trump’s lawyers argue that his campaign rhetoric and opinions are protected by the First Amendment.

Nicholas Sandmann, a student at Covington Catholic High School in northern Kentucky, alleged that he was defamed by news coverage and social media sharing of accounts of his encounter near the Lincoln Memorial with a Native American activist in early 2019. Sandmann sued The Washington Post for $250 million; NBC and CNN for $275 million each.  CNN and The Washington Post settled for undisclosed terms.

Are media rattled by all this litigation? Yes, I think that’s pretty apparent. How could they not be in this anti-press environment? Libel claims are part of a general, overarching criticism of press, reporting the news, and media prerogatives.

From a bottom-line standpoint, media must pay for legal defense. Newspaper publisher McClatchy — a defendant in one of Congressman Devin Nunes’ myriad libel suits — filed for bankruptcy in February. The Poynter Institute for journalism published commentary in 2019 that McClatchy could hire 10 reporters for the money it would spend on the Nunes lawsuit.

A small newspaper in Iowa (Carroll Times Herald) won a libel case but created a GoFundMe appeal in 2019 because the legal defense drained its resources. Response to the solicitation — mainly small donations, from across the country — was impressive.

Most certainly the Sandmann cases have drained considerable resources from some of the most noted media companies in the country as those out-of-court settlements show.

Non-political Cases

We also see a flurry of high-dollar claims not directly related to political speech.

On August 14, the unanimous North Carolina Supreme Court upheld a jury's libel decision against the Raleigh newspaper (Beth Desmond v. The News & Observer Publishing Company). The Ohio private liberal arts Oberlin College is appealing the whopping $44 million in damages awarded to a local bakery stemming from an alleged shoplifting attempt by three African American students (Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College). Rolling Stone paid dearly for its flawed article about a campus rape at the University of Virginia. 

Is libel law likely to change?

Fundamental change is not likely in the near future. Justice Clarence Thomas suggested it’s time for the Supreme Court to examine/roll back the New York Times v. Sullivan standard created in 1964. The premise is that current strict standards intended to protect free speech and free press make it nearly impossible for public figures and public officials to prevail in libel cases.

Justice Thomas’ colleagues on the Court have not publicly joined him in urging review of Sullivan.

Libel cases are percolating in federal and state courts that eventually could ripen for Supreme Court review. The Roberts Court has been protective of speech, including commercial and political speech, such as:

  • Citizens United v. FEC, 2010 (political contributions)

  • Snyder v. Phelps, 2010 (picketing at funerals)

  • Sorrell v. IMS Health, 2011 (data mining, drug marketing)

  • Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 2015 (sign regulations cannot be based on content)

  • Matal v. Tam, 2017 (trademarks)​

We all can be grateful that American libel law does not mirror British libel law, where the burden of proof is on the defendant rather than the plaintiff. Surely by now we have all seen the clickbait coverage of actor Johnny Depp’s libel case against The Sun (Johnny Depp v. News Group Newspapers) for its 2018 reportage of his contentious divorce, which included a headline calling him a “wife beater.”

American libel law is not British libel law. And we need to keep it that way.

© The National Law Forum. LLCNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 234
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About this Author

Aimee Edmondson Journalism Professor EW Scripps
Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University

Aimee Edmondson, PhD, is professor and director of graduate studies at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.  She is author of “In Sullivan’s Shadow: The Use and Abuse of Libel Law During the Long Civil Rights Struggle.”

Edmondson grew up in a small farming community in northeast Louisiana. She describes her book on libel as the product of 30 years of rumination on race and journalism.

Edmondson is first Vice President of the American Journalism Historians Association. She is an expert in...

edmondso@ohio.edu
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