Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by Donald Trump’s latest campaign promise to sue newspapers for publishing stories that are “purposely negative.”
At a rally Friday in Fort Worth, Texas, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pledged that he would reform United States libel laws so that “when the New York Times or the Washington Post writes a hit piece, we can sue them.”
Under current American law, any public figure suing for libel must prove that a defamatory statement was made with actual malice, meaning that the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had knowledge that the statement was false or had reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
This standard of actual malice, established in the 1964 Supreme Court Decision New York Times v. Sullivan, is essential to the protection of press freedom in the United States. Placing the burden of proof on the plaintiff makes it very difficult for a government official to sue a newspaper for simply publishing a critical article.
Though Trump failed to specify exactly how he would “open up libel laws” to make suing newspapers more feasible, one possible reform could be to shift the burden of proof to the defendant.
“Imagine if in America, the country of the First Amendment, newspapers were constantly taken to court for publishing articles questioning or criticizing the actions of public figures like government officials,” said Margaux Ewen, advocacy and communications officer for RSF’s U.S. office. “The fear of perpetual lawsuits would have a chilling effect on journalists’ ability to do their job and many newspapers would likely fold from the cost of defending lawsuits left and right.”
This is the latest incident where Donald Trump has made clear his disregard for freedom of the press. Previously, he has restricted media access to campaign events, insulted and bullied reporters who portray him negatively or ask him tough questions, and refused to participate in a republican debate because FoxNews refused to remove its reporter Megyn Kelly as a moderator.
Trump’s actions during the run up to the 2016 presidential election mark an alarming trend of curtailing freedom of the press in the United States. Since 2013, the U.S.’s ranking on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index has fallen by 14 points. It is now ranked 49 out of 180 countries.