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Donald Trump and libel litigation

Presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaking today: “We’re going to open up those libel laws. 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 also said of Amazon, whose Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, a newspaper that just ran an editorial seeking to rally opposition to Trump: “If I become president, oh do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.”

The President has no direct power to change libel law, which consists of state law constrained by constitutional law as laid out by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan. A President could appoint Justices intent on overturning the press protections of Sullivan or promote a constitutional amendment to overturn it. Assuming one or the other eventually was made to happen, further changes in libel law would probably require action at the state level, short of some novel attempt to create a federal cause of action for defamation.

But although Trump is unlikely to obtain the exact set of changes he outlines, the outburst is psychologically revealing. Donald Trump has been filing and threatening lawsuits to shut up critics and adversaries over the whole course of his career. He dragged reporter Tim O’Brien through years of litigation over a relatively favorable Trump biography that assigned a lower valuation to his net worth than he thought it should have. He sued the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic over a piece arguing that a planned Trump skyscraper in lower Manhattan would be “one of the silliest things” that could be built in the city. He used the threat of litigation to get an investment firm to fire an analyst who correctly predicted that the Taj Mahal casino would not be a financial success. He sued comedian Bill Maher over a joke.

I have been writing about the evils of litigation for something like 30 years, and following the litigious exploits of Donald Trump for very nearly that long. I think it very plausible to expect that if he were elected President, he would bring to the White House the same spirit of litigiousness he has so often shown as a public figure. (cross-posted at Cato at Liberty)

P.S. Also reprinted at Newsweek. And Ilya Somin cites further elements forming a pattern: Trump has expressed his wish to “have the FCC take some of his critics off the airwaves” and his regret that protesters at his events could not be dealt with in such a way that they “have to be carried out on a stretcher.” He also writes that should Trump proceed to appoint judges who strongly share his view of libel law, those judges “are unlikely to effectively protect other important speech rights and civil liberties.” And a late-January post from Patterico recalls Trump threats against the Washington Post (again), John Kasich, a t-shirt company, and a Jeb Bush PAC, to which might be added the Club for Growth, reporter Tim Mak, Scotland, Univision, and many more. Yet more: Mike Masnick, TechDirt.

Trump campaign files round of defamation suits

Donald Trump had a long record of filing defamation lawsuits before running for president, and as a candidate he famously vowed to “open up” libel laws to allow more suits. Now, over the past two weeks, his campaign has sued three news organizations, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN, in each case alleging libel. [Eugene Volokh (summarizing Wall Street Journal coverage of Times and Post suits); Fadel Allassan, Axios (CNN suit)] Rep. Devin Nunes, a presidential ally, has filed seven suits against various entities [earlier and more]

Given the broad protections for writing about public figures enunciated by the Supreme Court in the case of New York Times v. Sullivan, few if any of these suits are likely to prevail at final judgment. Still, a suit like this serves “to drag people into court and imposes the time, burden, distraction, and cost of having to defend themselves, with the added benefit that it may make people and the press less willing to criticize these people. ” [Howard Wasserman, PrawfsBlawg] Time for state legislators to consider enacting stronger protections against unfounded suits?

Attorney rebuffs Trump’s Fire and Fury cease-and-desist

Recommended: Attorney Elizabeth McNamara of Davis Wright Tremaine, a law firm known for its media defense practice, wrote this three-page letter on behalf of publisher Henry Holt and author Michael Wolff responding to Donald Trump’s letter demanding that it not publish Wolff’s book Fire and Fury (“My clients do not intend to cease publication, no such retraction will occur, and no apology is warranted.”). How strong are the President’s claims based on contractual non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses? David Post has a few things to say about that [Volokh Conspiracy] As for Mr. Trump’s possible defamation claims, American courts will not ordinarily enjoin a defamatory publication unless the fact of defamation has been proven at trial, so any remedy he may have will need to be after-the-fact in any case. “The suggestion that Donald Trump would actually follow through on this latest of his many legal threats, much less win…. is the hootworthy part.” [Lowering the Bar]

Addressing a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the President once again called for changing libel laws to make it easier for plaintiffs to win, although libel is a matter of state rather than federal law [Gregory Korte and David Jackson, USA Today] Irony watch, from last month: “Trump’s statements ‘too vague, subjective, and lacking in precise meaning’ to be libelous,” in suit by political strategist who was the target of future President’s tweets in February 2016 [Eugene Volokh] “Trump has been filing and threatening lawsuits to shut up critics and adversaries over the whole course of his career,” I noted in this space last year. “Mr. Trump’s supporters should also keep in mind that one day they too will want to criticize a public official without being punished for doing so.” [John Samples, Cato]

“Opening up” libel law, cont’d

It is not clear whether a Thursday tweet from President Donald “Sue the Press” Trump should be interpreted as a serious policy proposal as distinct from an irritable gesture, but if its logic were pursued it might suggest that the chief executive favors extending defamation liability to coverage that is incomplete as opposed to untruthful and would have been fairer if it included points to be made on behalf of a covered personage. That’s not how defamation works under current First Amendment law, though [Jacob Sullum; earlier on Trump and libel]

Trump and regulatory retaliation: a letter

Here’s a letter to the editor I sent to the Washington Post that they didn’t publish, responding to a piece by their business columnist Steven Pearlstein.

To the editor:

Steven Pearlstein (Dec. 2) writes with apparent approval of the prospect that President Trump will “make an example of a runaway company by sending in the tax auditors or the OSHA inspectors or cancelling a big government contract. It won’t matter that, two years later, these highly publicized retaliations are thrown out by a federal judge somewhere. Most companies …will find a way to conform to the new norm.”

I was reminded of Paul Farhi’s revealing story in the Post last March about Donald Trump’s prolonged, losing libel suit against reporter Timothy O’Brien. Per that report, Trump “said in an interview that he knew he couldn’t win the suit but brought it anyway to make a point. “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”

The knowing use of a flimsy legal case to retaliate or intimidate, to inflict punishments or extract concessions a judge would never have ordered, is no more excusable when aimed at other sorts of businesses and professionals than when aimed at the press and reporters. In both cases it is wrong, it sets a bullying example to others, and it endangers the impartial rule of law.

— W.O.

(cross-posted from Cato at Liberty)

Donald Trump sends nastygram to Club for Growth

Public figure Donald Trump, target of a Club for Growth attack ad, has responded in characteristic manner by firing off a cease and desist letter to the club [Business Insider, Chris Cilizza/Washington Post] Trump lawyer Alan Garten calls the ad:

“…replete with outright lies, false, defamatory attacks and destructive statements and downright fabrications which you fully know to be untrue, thereby exposing you and your so-called ‘club’ to liability for damages and other tortious harm,” Garten wrote.

Garten said he was only willing to offer the Club for Growth a “one-time opportunity to rectify this matter” and avoid “what will certainly be a costly litigation process.”

“In the event, however, that we do not receive these assurances, please be advised that we will commence a multi-million dollar lawsuit against you personally and your organization for your false and defamatory statements,” he concluded. “Please be guided accordingly.”‘

Four years ago I wrote about Trump’s long record of using litigation and its threat as a weapon against critics and journalists whose account of his business dealings he found displeasing, and questioned whether this pattern harmonized well with general Republican/conservative disapproval of the unnecessary use of litigation. Earlier on Trump. More: Jonathan Adler (“suit has no legal basis” and “is what is commonly known as a SLAPP suit — a suit that’s designed to shut people up.”)

Free speech roundup

  • Guidelines urge UK prosecutors to charge those who “egg on others” to violate social media speech laws [The Register]
  • Mississippi county’s ban on clown costumes probably violates the First Amendment [Eugene Volokh]
  • Propositions placed before voters in Washington, Oregon, Missouri, South Dakota would require nonprofits to disclose donors. Chilling effects ahead should they pass [Tracie Sharp and Darcy Olsen, WSJ]
  • Blogger critical of Houston cancer researcher put through FBI investigation (and cleared) following dubious complaint [Ken White, Popehat]
  • And they’re right. “New York law to combat Citizens United is ‘constitutionally unsound’ says NYCLU” [Ronald K.L. Collins] Would Michael Moore’s anti-Trump film have run afoul of pre-Citizens United law? [Trevor Burrus]
  • Trying to count how many journalists Donald Trump has threatened to sue “quickly turned into a fool’s errand.” [Trevor Timm, Columbia Journalism Review, earlier here, etc., etc.; related, Steve Chapman on corrections] And: Trump libel threat clock resets to zero each time the mogul threatens to sue a journalist or critic. Even more: fearful he will sue, ABA stifles report critical of Trump’s litigation [New York Times]

Free speech roundup

  • “‘Hate speech’ is not a legal category, and banning it wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny.” [Cato Daily Podcast episodes with Caleb Brown interviewing Matthew Feeney and Lou Perez]
  • “Civil FOSTA Suits Start Showing Up In Court; Prove That FOSTA Supporters Were 100% Wrong About Who Would Be Targeted” [Mike Masnick, TechDirt, earlier]
  • Cause célèbre in the U.K.: employment law tribunal, an institution with no exact counterpart in American law, rules against worker fired from nonprofit over tweets expressing view that sex is immutable biological characteristic [Owen Bowcott, The Guardian; Jodie Ginsberg (chief executive of Index on Censorship group]
  • California attorney general’s office demands donor lists of non-profits, including those out of state. Supreme Court should now clarify its doctrine that all laws infringing on First Amendment freedoms be narrowly tailored [Ilya Shapiro, Trevor Burrus, and James Knight on Cato certiorari amicus brief in Institute for Free Speech v. Becerra; earlier and related here, here, etc.]
  • Trump sues the New York Times for libel over a Max Frankel op-ed and Eric Turkewitz doesn’t think much of his prospects [earlier]
  • “Was This the Decade We Hit Peak Free Speech?” [Jesse Walker]