Donald Trump wants to dent the same shield that protects his own hide.
The bombastic billionaire and Republican presidential front-runner vowed Feb. 26 to “open up our libel laws” so media outlets could be sued for political criticism. Such a revision would conflict with the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantees.
In a canny coincidence, the fundamental American freedom he seeks to weaken spared him from criminal charges following an assault during last week’s raucous rally in Fayetteville.
The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office said early Monday it was investigating Trump’s conduct in his March 9 speech at the Crown Coliseum, suggesting he could be charged with inciting a riot. John McGraw, a 78-year-old Trump supporter, was caught on camera sucker-punching protester Rakeem Jones.
Trump is known for shouting down demonstrators, yelling to police and security workers to eject them and defending his backers when the fists begin to fly. He even told NBC’s Chuck Todd he would consider paying McGraw’s legal fees, though he later condemned the attack and said he wouldn’t foot the bill for the man’s defense.
While Trump should do more to denounce violence at his rallies, his reluctance to rein in the goons cannot be the basis for a criminal charge. The First Amendment protects all American citizens from compelled speech — that is, being coerced into delivering the government’s preferred message.
Free speech isn’t absolute. The Supreme Court has identified narrow categories of expression, including true threats and fighting words, that fall outside First Amendment bounds. Trump’s talk on the campaign trail, however, fails to meet either definition.
Sheriff Earl “Moose” Butler said late Monday there was not enough evidence to charge Trump with a crime. The First Amendment kept The Donald out of court.
In last month’s tirade against the media — a perennial punching bag for Trump — the real estate mogul said expanded libel laws would punish newspapers and TV stations for negative and false coverage. Existing law already defines falsehoods as libel, provided the publisher acted with “actual malice” or reckless disregard for the truth.
Shaped by decades of careful jurisprudence, current libel laws are sufficient to protect politicians from malicious smear campaigns and fraudulent exposés without trampling constitutional free-speech protections. We can only presume Trump wants to muzzle the media when it reports “negative” information, even if the unflattering details are true.
Trump hasn’t been shy about criticizing his Republican rivals or lashing out at pundits and public figures on Twitter. His often sophomoric attacks don’t lead to a flurry of lawsuits because the First Amendment protects even his most brutal barbs from government sanction.
Someone who can dish out strident criticism ought to be able to take it. Someone who benefits from free-speech protections should be loath to deprive others of the same defense.
If Trump is elected president and manages to tinker with libel, slander and defamation laws to his satisfaction, he may well be the first one slapped with a suit. How’s that for irony?