Libel law and Donald Trump

This is not a political post about Donald Trump.

Trump today threatened to sue The New York Times over a story accusing him of sexual misconduct of two women in the past. Trump is threatening to sue The Times for libel.

As someone who is teaching media law this semester, I can tell you that Trump will face a very tough road in this lawsuit. It will be very hard, if not impossible, for him to win.

To win a libel lawsuit, a public figure like Trump needs to prove four things: publication, identification, defamation and actual malice. Let's look at all four:

Publication: The plaintiff must show that the item was published to at least one other person aside from themselves and the defendant. Trump's got this one, since it was a story in The New York Times.

Identification: The plaintiff must show that the item is of and pertaining to them. Again, Trump's got this one since it's very clearly about him.

Defamation: The plaintiff must show that the article contained a false statement of fact that injured their reputation. And here's where Trump's case could start falling apart. Because the statements have to be false. If they are true, there is no defamation. If there's no defamation, there's no libel.

Here's a key point in libel law, and it comes from the Supreme Court case Times v. Sullivan. Everyone always focuses on the "actual malice" part of that ruling (more on that below), but the court also changed the burden of proof in libel cases. Now, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. That means that Donald Trump has to prove these allegations are false (rather than the defendants having to prove that the allegations are true).

That is a huge bar for Trump to clear to win.

Actual Malice: This is the big one from Times v. Sullivan. Trump has to prove that The Times printed the stories either knowing they were false or with a reckless disregard for the truth. In other words, they didn't even try to verify the veracity of the allegations, they didn't care, they wrote the story anyway.

Trump's lawyers (if the suit actually happens) will probably try to argue the fact that the story was published less than a month before the election is proof of this. But the actual story in The Times shows that they attempted to corroborate the women's allegations and they reached out to Trump for comment. That, on the face of it, does not appear to constitute actual malice.

The point of the ruling is that it should be very hard for public officials (and public figures) to win a libel suit. Which is the case for Trump here. If he goes through with the lawsuit, it will be incredibly hard — if not impossible — for him to win.