U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Trump vows to take a ‘strong look’ at libel laws

Incident Details

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

President Donald Trump, flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, holds a cabinet meeting at the White House, on January 10, 2018.

— REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
January 10, 2018

President Donald Trump said during a Cabinet meeting on Jan. 10, 2018 that he wanted to “a strong look” at changing libel laws.

“We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws,” he said. “So that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts. If somebody says something that is totally false, and knowingly false, that the person that has been abused, defamed, libeled, will have meaningful recourse. Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness. So we’re going to take a strong look at that. We want fairness. Can’t say things that are false, knowingly false, and be able to smile as money pours into your bank account. We are going to take a very, very strong look at that, and I think what the American people want to see is fairness.”

There is no federal libel law, but state-level libel laws already give plaintiffs the opportunity for “meaningful recourse” in the courts. Under the current standard for defamation and libel, which is based on landmark Supreme Court rulings like New York Times v. Sullivan, a publication can be held liable for printing a statement that it knows to be false and that harms a subject’s reputation.

Trump has long advocated for changing libel laws. During his 2016 presidential election campaign, he said that he wanted to “open up” libel laws, and in March 2017 he suggested that The New York Times should be sued under broadened libel laws.

Despite Trump’s threats, the president cannot unilaterally change libel laws, according to First Amendment scholars. 

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].