Trump Once Again Threatens to Change Federal Libel Laws That Don’t Exist

In the latest in a long line of attacks on freedom of the press, President Trump has once again threatened today to change libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations, publishers, and others after the publication of an unflattering book.

“We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts,” Trump said.

Fortunately, there are two strong obstacles standing in his way. Chief among them is the First Amendment, which clearly protects freedom of the press. But the other main barrier is the inconvenient fact that there is no federal libel law for President Trump to bully Congress to change. Libel cases are based on state laws, which neither the president nor Congress has control over because of our nation’s federalist system.

The president no doubt has a very personal stake in this. Just last week, Trump’s private attorneys sent a threatening letter to the publisher of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” just before publication, warning of libel liability if the book were released — which of course it was.

The Supreme Court has ruled multiple times that the First Amendment raises a high bar for any laws that might infringe on the freedoms of speech and the press. And that bar is even higher for libel suits brought by public officials because of the power they wield in society. For a public official to win a libel suit, the plaintiff must not only show that the defendant published a false and defamatory statement but that the defendant did so maliciously.

In the 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan, the court found that a journalist who published erroneous information about a public figure without knowing it was wrong was constitutionally protected. The justices wrote that limitations on libel laws reflect our “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhib­ited, robust, and wide‐open, and that it may well include vehe­ment, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” In a later case, the court said that if the legal system were to punish all false statements regardless of motive, it could “lead to intolerable self-censorship” by the press.

It’s a shame that the president continues to attempt to undermine one of the central tenets of our democracy. Luckily, the First Amendment and the press freedoms it protects aren’t going anywhere.

View comments (17)
Read the Terms of Use


“We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws"
The upside on this is that his attorneys might actually read the law, something that has apparently been wanting for a while. I doubt Mr. Cohen would have proceeded in his own suit v Wolff etAl if he had actually read and comprehended the pertinent statute.


Not surprising that he is unaware of the fact that there are no federal libel laws. The things he is ignorant about could fill all the volumes in the Library of Congress!


So the Press is demanding the right to lie....


I believe that Fox News has already won a case to that effect.


No, fool. Libel laws exist, but at the state level. Did you read the article? If someone says something defamatory about you that is not true, you can sue them in most states. In most states, you have to be able to prove that a statement is false to win a suit. 17 states have criminal laws about libel/slander, the rest are civil. The tenets of our democracy that protect freedom of speech and press are one of the most important. If you want truth, you should get your information from multiple, competing sources. Democracy is most at risk when the people don't even know what it is, so please, please read a book.


It's also notable that even if Trump were able to change the rules so he could sue over these things, he couldn't sue over anything that had already been released, because such changes are not retroactive - you can't be made liable for something after the fact.


Ummmmm so the writer of this article did not once mention the posting false information was bad. Scary times ahead


RTFA, junior.


Trump is a babbling fool who doesn't have a clue.

Roger Q Callaway

The Trump and The Republicans are like Uncle Remus’ Tar Baby. No matter what you hit him with, he jus sit there grinning. It must be the rich people and business that is propping him up.


Stay Informed