“Change Libel Laws?”-POTUS

“The failing @nytimes has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change libel laws?” -The President of the United States, via Twitter, on March 30, 2017


Apparently, a part of Donald Trump’s exceptional plan to “Make America Great Again” involves taking a step backwards through time to when journalism was a field that Anthony Lewis, author of Freedom for the Thought that we Hate, describes as stenographic.

Chapter four of Lewis’s book, focuses on a case that shifted the way libel is handled in the United States. In 1964, the Supreme Court Case Sullivan v. New York Times was heard. Sullivan sued the New York Times for libel. While the times report did contain some factual errors, they didn’t feel that they had provided incorrect information about Sullivan specifically. The court ruled that since the New York Times was not acting out of apparent malice, a libel claim was not valid.

Prior to Sullivan v. New York Times, journalists accused of libel were assumed guilty, unless they could prove that what they had said was true. Placing the burden of proof on the defendant is inconsistent with the way the rest of the American court system functions. However, once the court, specifically the Warren Court, decided that the burden of proof lies on the accuser, and that public figures could only sue for libel if they could prove that the claims made against them were false and that the perpetrator of these claims had malicious intent, journalism was able to reach new heights, and to fully take on their role as a check to those in power.

While the extreme freedom that the press is given to check government officials is often a good thing, in my opinion, it can also have some frightening consequences. During last year’s presidential election, I found my Facebook flooded with articles calling Hillary Clinton “Killary”, and accusing her of murder, amongst other equally horrific things (Pizzagate, etc). While I’m not sure that these articles  caused enough damage to lose Hillary the election, there seems to be an ever muddying line between fact and fiction, and I wonder what can be done to remedy this while still maintaining protections for those who are attempting to publish the truth.

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