Li­bel laws pro­tect speech, free press, bar cen­sor­ship

The Palm Beach Post - - OPINION: THE DEBATE STARTS HERE - By Lynn Walsh Lynn Walsh is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and for­mer pres­i­dent of the So­ci­ety of Pro­fes­sional Jour­nal­ists. She wrote this for In­sid­eSources. com.

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

Most re­cently, Pres­i­dent 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.’

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.

IM­AGES SCOTT OLSON / GETTY

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has spo­ken many times in public about his be­lief that li­bel laws are not strong enough.

Walsh

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