Believe it or not, the most frightening part of Donald Trump’s speech in Fort Worth on Friday wasn’t the red meat he threw to religious right supporters. Nope, not by a longshot. Trump also announced that if he becomes president, he will use the libel laws to effectively muzzle anyone who dares to oppose his effort to “make America great again.”
Trump has made no secret that he doesn’t like the “dishonest scum” in the media, and told the crowd that he wants to use the libel laws to cut them down to size. People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch got a clip.
After taking swipes at The New York Times (“one of the most dishonest media outlets I’ve ever seen in my life”) and The Washington Post (which he called a mouthpiece for Amazon.com), he warned the media that they will “have problems” if he wins the election. What kind of problems? Well, we’ll let the Donald tell you.
“One of the things I’m going to do if I win, and I hope I do and we’re certainly leading, is I’m gonna open up our libel laws so when they write purposefully negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re gonna open up those libel laws so that 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. You see, with me, they’re not protected, because I’m not like other people. ‘But I’m not taking money, I’m not taking their money.’ So we’re gonna open up those libel laws, folks, and we’re gonna have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
As we all know, well-established precedent, via New York Times v. Sullivan, holds that public figures can only sue for libel if they can prove that a news organization knew a story was false or made no effort to find out whether it was false or not. It allows reporters to do their jobs without undue fear of reprisal, especially when they are working to uncover unethical or illegal conduct. Indeed, prior to New York Times v. Sullivan, a number of news outlets were skittish about calling out public officials in the South for their continued support of segregation, for fear that they would be sued.
That’s why Trump’s promise to “open up those libel laws” should send a chill down the spine of any fair-minded American. If Trump were to get his way, it would have the effect of scaring the press into silence. And while Trump was directing his ire specifically at The Times and The Post, smaller outlets would feel the sting more. For instance, it is highly unlikely that the lump of dung that is Bridgegate would have been exposed had The (Bergen County) Record had fears of lawsuits from Chris Christie and his cronies hanging over it like a sword of Damocles.
When I first read this, my thoughts turned to the situation in Singapore. The governing People’s Action Party frequently resorts to libel suits in order to legally gag its critics. For instance, blogger Roy Ngerng was hauled into court by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for suggesting that Lee was siphoning off money from a pension fund, and ended up paying the equivalent of over $100,000 in damages. Does Trump really want to be compared to a country with one of the most tightly controlled media environments in the world?
As many of you know, it’s almost an article of faith on the right that Obama is a dictator–even though any serious analysis shows that Obama doesn’t do dictator very well. And now some of them are supporting a guy who has openly called for a measure that can only be described as dictatorial. The mind reels.