By Eva Guarnero
Donald Trump has promised that if he is elected president, he will “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue the press. He feels that media outlets like the New York Times and The Washington Post are intentionally writing false and negative pieces about him, and hopes to make it easier for news outlets to be sued for doing so.
In making these comments, Trump is walking the same path as those who sought to silence the civil rights movement decades ago.
Current libel laws require plaintiffs who are public figures to not only prove that what was said about them was false, but also that the media outlet in question demonstrated Actual Malice. Actual Malice in this context means that the outlet knew whether the information was false, and/or showed reckless disregard for whether the information was false.
This practice was established with the 1964 lawsuit New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, in which Montgomery Public Safety Commissioner L. B. Sullivan filed a suit against the New York Times over a full page ad titled “Heed Their Rising Voices.” The ad, which ran on March 29, 1960, listed incidents of violence against Martin Luther King Jr. and others involved in the civil rights movement, and called upon readers to lend their support.
Sullivan, in his lawsuit, listed several factual inaccuracies in the ad. King was arrested four times, not seven. The protesters sang the National Anthem, not My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. None of these changed the message of the piece, but it was enough for Sullivan to take them to court and win a $500,000 ruling (roughly $4 million, adjusted for inflation).
This was not the first time something like this had happened. In fact, nearly $300 million (roughly $2 billion, adjusted for inflation) in libel suits had been brought against papers reporting on the civil rights movement up until that point. What made this case important, however, was the New York Times didn’t take it lying down.
They took it all the way to the Supreme Court, where the judges ruled a unanimous 9-0 in favor of the New York Times. They found that the laws regarding libel against public figures failed to offer protection for publications, and was