Trump Steps Up Libel Law Rhetoric

Evan Vucci

Donald Trump repeated his desire Sunday to change free speech laws in America for the media, “if they do something wrong.”

“Well in England they have a system where you can actually sue if someone says something wrong. Our press is allowed to say whatever they want and get away with it. And I think we should go to a system where if they do something wrong—” Trump told WFOR in Miami. “I’m a big believer tremendous believer of the freedom of the press. Nobody believes it stronger than me but if they make terrible, terrible mistakes and those mistakes are made on purpose to injure people. I’m not just talking about me I’m talking anybody else then yes, I think you should have the ability to sue them."

Pressed further, Trump added: “In England you have a good chance of winning. And deals are made and apologies are made. Over here they don’t have to apologize. They can say anything they want about you or me and there doesn’t have to be any apology. England has a system where if they are wrong things happen."

This is not the first time Trump has threatened not only to sue media companies he doesn’t like, but to make it easier for anyone else to sue them, too.

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win—and I hope we do, and we’re certainly leading—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 in February. “So when the New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”

Trump’s take on the First Amendment is a departure from the current legal standard in the United States, which requires proof of actual malice in order to pursue a libel suit against a news organization—that is, a knowing disregard for whether a printed allegation is true or not. In the U.K., libel claimants have to prove “serious harm,” which places more liability on publishers. A 2013 law established a framework for settling libel claims out of court in the U.K.

Trump’s current huffing-and-puffing about suing news organizations doesn't even reach that standard, however. In his repeated threats to media outlets who have published the accounts of women who say Trump touched them inappropriately—and the accusers themselves, who Trump has also threatened to sue—the GOP nominee has offered extremely little by way of proof for his counter-claims.

After the New York Times scoffed at Trump's suggestion that he would “pursue all legal actions and remedies” if it did not remove an article about him inappropriately touching two women, Trump put forward Anthony Gilberthorpe, a frequent on- and off-record source for British tabloids, who claimed to be on the same flight on which Trump allegedly forced himself on Jessica Leeds in the early '80s. Gilberthorpe, citing his “excellent memory," insisted to the New York Post that it was Leeds who in fact was “trying to hard” to win Trump’s attention.

The attorney representing Jill Harth, who sued Trump for sexual harassment and assault in 1997 and came forward again this year in light of recent allegations against the Republican nominee, happily noted one consequence for Trump if he were to go forward with a threatened lawsuit: Legal discovery, in which Trump and all of his accusers would be required to give in-depth depositions, under oath.

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