From petty name-calling to louder-than-dog-whistle instances of racism, the level of discourse in this year’s presidential election has sunk to new lows. And the tone is being set by Donald Trump, the front-runner for bully-in-chief.
As primary voting continues, and we brace ourselves for a contentious Republican National Convention in July, voters are faced with a clear choice: Support a national leader who wishes to rule as an authoritarian, silencing political dissent, demeaning free speech, and attempting to crush his opposition at all costs, or fall back on our long-standing American tradition, that we are a free people — free to speak, free to dissent, and free to exercise the liberty of original thought.
Trump’s recent proposal to relax America’s libel laws is an affront on our civil liberties. He wants to make it easier to sue news organizations so that he can use the court system as a personal attack dog on those who dare to speak up against him.
Lawsuits like these are often called SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). According to the Public Participation Project, these suits are intended to “chill free speech and healthy debate by targeting those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest.”
Much to Trump’s delight, SLAPP lawsuits can be brought against anyone or any company — from consumers who post less-than-stellar reviews online to TV news outlets that are sued for simply reporting the news.
Legislation aimed squarely at remedying such an outlandish situation is before Congress, and similar measures have been approved in more than two dozen states. Commonly referred to as anti-SLAPP legislation, these measures provide a safeguard against lawsuits intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics.
Speaking to a crowd in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this year, Trump explained that he wants to “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” Combine that with a history of vengefulness and an extremely long enemies list, and one gets the sense that Trump’s lawsuit list would be filled with journalists, bloggers, and everyday citizens, as well as those unnamed victims silenced by the fear of retaliation that could hurt them personally, professionally, and financially.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s proposal is fraught with factual errors. Libel laws are state-based. No such statute exists at the federal level. And more than half of U.S. states have already enacted anti-SLAPP statutes designed to protect Americans from the government, companies, or individuals from malicious lawsuits that attempt to stifle our free speech.
Free speech is enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution. To ensure that all U.S. citizens enjoy that protection, we need a federal anti-SLAPP law like the SPEAK FREE Act.
Introduced in the House with bipartisan support, the SPEAK FREE Act is critically important to providing federal protections for Americans of all stripes from intimidation, and it would afford us all the ability to exercise our constitutional prerogatives. The bill would end meritless anti-speech lawsuits quickly by making overreaching plaintiffs pay the legal fees and related costs when they lose. And we all know Trump’s opinion of “losers.”
Trump is a speech troll, misusing our legal system to bring nuisance lawsuits to harass reporters. He boasted to the Washington Post that he sued reporter Timothy L. O’Brien, author of Trump Nation: The Art of Being The Donald, “to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.” More, he has encouraged violence, offered to pay legal fees for supporters who physically assault protesters, and even stood by and defended his campaign manager who was charged with misdemeanor battery on the campaign trail, blaming the victim and excusing the physical abuse.
Time and again, Trump demonstrates a flawed understanding of the U.S. Constitution and of American values. His dominance and rise in the polls have put the very fabric of our society in peril.
Trump’s contempt for free speech goes well beyond a desire to weaken libel laws, however.
“Opening up” our libel laws would have a chilling effect not only on free discourse, but also on an open Internet and the 21st-century information economy. Supporting strong anti-SLAPP legislation would send Trump a message: No reasonable, thinking American wants a bully in the White House.