breaking news

A daughter’s grief: Harrouff homicides still scar my family memories

Commentary: Libel laws exist to protect speech and press freedoms


Hearing President Donald Trump talk about wanting to change libel laws in the United States reminds me of the saying I, and probably most young kids, are told while growing up: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

When Trump tweets or speaks from a podium about how libel laws are not strong enough, it is almost always after a story has been published that was critical of him.

Take the story published by The New York Times about sexual misconduct accusations against the then-presidential candidate. After the story went live, candidate Trump called it libelous and said U.S. libel laws should be changed to give public figures, like himself, a chance at winning libel lawsuits.

A couple of months later, in March of last year, Trump brings up the idea of changing libel laws again. It once again comes after The New York Times publishes a story critical of him.

“Change libel laws?” he asked in a tweet.

Most recently, Trump discussed opening up libel laws after the release of Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury.” He called current libel laws a “sham” and a “disgrace.”

It seems, if Trump had his way, a change in libel laws would look like this: if you don’t have anything nice to say about the president, his administration or his companies, you won’t be publishing anything at all.

The problem is, that’s censorship. More important, that is not what this country was founded on.

Instead, our laws that protect free speech and a free press do the opposite. They allow for opinions to be shared, for criticism of the government and questioning of public leaders, including the president of the United States.

In the United States libel laws are state-based, not federal (so Trump could not amend libel law because there is not a federal statute governing libel). It was a Supreme Court ruling (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan) that set the standard for what is considered libelous. That standard, the actual malice standard, exists today and requires public officials to prove the publisher of information knew a statement was false when publishing it and acted in reckless disregard of the truth.

It is a high bar but for good reason. It’s because of this standard that the public doesn’t have to worry that a public official will be able to silence critical news stories or opinions just because they do not like it or it hurts their feelings.

Public officials have to prove that the information is false, not unflattering and that the person publishing knew it was false and published it anyway.

What’s important to point out is this standard applies to public officials. There is another standard, the negligence standard, which anyone can sue under for false statements. But, with public officials, the actual malice standard is applied to balance the importance of free speech against false statements.

Libel laws protect free speech and a free press. Without them, stories (including online) and opinions (including on social media) could be censored or removed, simply because someone’s feelings are hurt.




Next Up in Opinion

Opinion: Action must be taken to address black community’s problems

During the weekend of Aug. 4-5 (and the preceding Friday night), 12 Chicagoans were shot dead, and 62 others were shot and wounded, the Chicago Tribune reported. Before last week’s mayhem, 1,718 Chicagoans had been shot since the beginning of the year, and 306 had been murdered. Adding to this tragedy is the fact that Chicago’s clearance...
Opinion: The only way to save the GOP is to defeat it in the House

University of Chicago researchers — who clearly have a lot of time on their hands — have found that the use of certain brands and products is a good predictor of your level of affluence. This is an exercise in the obvious when it comes to a $1,000 iPhone. But the same proved true with Ziploc plastic bags, Kikkoman soy sauce and Cascade...
Letters: Thank you for giving moms a well-deserved pass

Thank you for giving moms a deserved pass Thank you, Leslie Streeter, as well as Serena Williams for your comforting, reassuring words. (“Serena Williams: Thank you. Your Instagram open letter gave me life,” Wednesday) I believe you spoke not only for me but myriad other moms who combined “gigs” of motherhood and a profession...
Editorial: In primary, Bonfiglio (D), Spritz (R) for House District 89
Editorial: In primary, Bonfiglio (D), Spritz (R) for House District 89

With state Rep. Bill Hager reaching his term-limit allotment of eight years as state representative for coastal District 89, four candidates are vying to claim the Republican’s seat in the Aug. 28 primary. In the Democratic primary, Ocean Ridge Mayor James Bonfiglio, 64, is competing against Ryan Rossi, 33, a teacher turned real estate agent...
Editorial cartoon
Editorial cartoon

CARTOON VIEW JIMMY MARGULIES
More Stories