Column: Trump’s plan to weaken libel laws would backfire on him

If news outlets nationwide reported the truth in all its ugliness, Trump would find himself suing more media than he can afford.

The purpose of journalism is to speak the truth, no matter how ugly it might be. Donald Trump’s behavior has provided reporters with plenty of ugly truths for years, especially since he began his presidential campaign in June 2015. He announced Friday that if he is elected, he will “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists and news outlets.

“When they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” he said at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.

According to New York Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 Supreme Court ruling, one must prove in a libel lawsuit that a news organization published something with “actual malice,” “knowledge that the information was false” and “reckless disregard” for the truth. Trump has displayed a wide array of offensive words and actions, from proposing a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. to mocking a reporter with a disability, either in front of a camera or on social media, meaning the material is documented permanently.

He can blame reports on misinterpretation, like he did last summer regarding his sexist remarks about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly after she questioned him about his previous displays of sexism, or on a “lousy earpiece,” like he did on Monday regarding his reluctance to disavow an endorsement from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. He can lie, like he did Sunday when he said he didn’t know who Duke was, even though he denounced Duke and the KKK in 2000. He can equivocate, contradict himself and play the victim all he wants, but he can’t get rid of the countless tweets and video clips that make him look bad before reporters can even get their hands on them. He also can’t pretend he didn’t launch a flop of a real-estate school, cheat on his first wife or have businesses file for bankruptcy four times. He has amassed so many criterions for criticism, and yet he said Friday that if he becomes president, news organizations that criticize him will “have problems.”

It’s never been a secret that Trump hates the media, given how many news outlets and individual reporters he has insulted. If elected, though, he plans to use his billions of dollars to render part of the First Amendment useless and bully journalists into doing his bidding. This endeavor could prove difficult for Trump, since only a new constitutional amendment can undo an existing one, and he would have to force the proposal through both houses of Congress with a two-thirds vote of approval in each. I’d like to say that’s impossible, but more than a few people said that about Trump making it this far in the presidential race. So let’s briefly imagine that he actually succeeds in making it easier to sue the media, regardless of its truthfulness.

Sounds like journalism’s worst nightmare, doesn’t it? Trump certainly hopes so. He hates journalists because he’s afraid of them, as shown by this far-fetched idea and his refusal to participate in the Jan. 28 GOP debate, which Kelly moderated. However, he knows journalists fear him, mainly because they don’t want his Twitter followers to bombard them with cyber-hate like they did to Kelly, and he’d love to keep that fear alive.

Loosening libel laws could have that effect, but it might instead do the opposite and make his own fear come true.

Hear me out: If news outlets nationwide confidently reported the truth in all its ugliness, regardless of potential legal repercussions, Trump would find himself suing more media than he can afford, even with all the wealth he flaunts. He would either drop the suits or go broke trying to carry them out. He’s convinced that freedom of the press is his enemy, but limiting such freedom would give the press, not Trump, more power.

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