Gullixson: Why Trump will fail in his quest to change libel laws
It should be evident by now, a year into this presidential administration, that there is really only one thing that stands in the way of Donald Trump. It’s the one thing he can’t get his hands around, to manipulate and to conform, either by wealth or decree, to his will.
It’s the one thing that drove hundreds of women and men — many of whom have never attended a political rally before — to fill Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square on Jan. 20 and millions more to fill the streets of cities nationwide. And it’s the one thing that he appears to insulate himself from given his apparent antipathy for reading and allegiance to Fox News.
It’s known by two simple words: the truth.
And like rain on Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, it’s ruining his game.
During his visit to the World Economic Forum on Friday, for example, he appeared to have forgotten he wasn’t at one of his manufactured rural Alabama rallies when he took another swipe at the media, noting how “nasty, how mean, how vicious and how fake the press can be.”
One can tell by his expression that he wasn’t expecting the response he was about to receive. Many in the room, including members of the global media, began to boo and hiss.
The moment came just hours after the president swept aside, without explanation, as “fake news” a New York Times report, sourced by four individuals, that he tried to fire special counselor Robert Mueller in June. It also came just a week after the president threatened to escalate his war against the news media by changing the nation’s libels laws.
“Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness,” he said, reading from prepared notes. “So we’re going to take a strong look at that.”
It was something he had pledged to do on the campaign trail as well, but this was the first time he brought it up in his capacity as president. Don’t be surprised if it’s also something he brings up on Tuesday when he delivers his first State of the Union Address.
But there are three simple reasons why this effort should and will fail.
First, the rules governing libel and slander laws are matters for state courts, not federal ones. There is simply no federal statute that Trump could alter — nor get Congress to revise — to make such a sweeping change.
Second, no single state, even if it wanted to change its defamation statutes, could alter the laws governing other states. Nor could it change the standard, one set in 1964 by the U.S. Supreme Court, by which a public official such as Donald Trump could win a libel suit against a newspaper or other member of the media. (More on that below)
And third, he is simply wrong when he says that the nation’s libel laws “do not represent American values or American fairness.” They represent our most fundamental value — protection against people of power and wealth using our system of laws to punish, either in criminal or civil court, those guilty of doing nothing more than telling the truth.
The fact is there is just one case, one Supreme Court ruling, that Trump would need to have overturned — and would probably like to see reversed — to get the change he seeks.