Throughout his career, Donald Trump has consistently threatened his critics with lawsuits in order to silence them—including, just last week, the women who have accused him of sexual assault. Disturbed by this censorial use of the law, the American Bar Association commissioned a report on Trump’s attempts to stifle free expression. (Disclosure: I am a member of the ABA.) The result is a comprehensive, thoroughly documented study concluding that Trump is a “libel bully.”
But the ABA refused to publish the report, out of fear that Trump would sue the organization for libel.
As reported by the New York Times, ABA leadership stepped in upon seeing a draft of the report with pleas to tone down its language. James Dimos, the group’s deputy executive director, asked the Forum on Communications Law—the media-law committee that authored the report—to eliminate the “libel bully” label and remove its bite in other ways. Dimos explained that while “we do not believe that [any potential Trump] lawsuit has merit, it is certainly reasonable to attempt to reduce such a likelihood by removing inflammatory language that is unnecessary to further the article’s thesis.” In other words, the ABA shouldn’t call a libel bully a libel bully because the libel bully might sue the ABA for libel.
The committee refused to comply—rightly so, of course—and the ABA declined to publish its work. Charles D. Tobin, a former chairman of the committee, called the ABA’s decision “colossally inappropriate,” slamming the organization for “sponsor[ing] a group of lawyers to study free speech issues” then “censor[ing] their free speech.” George Freeman, another former committee chairman, concurred. “As the guardian of the values of our legal system,” Freeman said, “the A.B.A. should not stop the publication of an article that criticizes people for bringing lawsuits not to win them but to economically squeeze their opponents.”
Luckily, the Media Law Resource Center has published the report, which is indeed a devastating documentation of Trump’s many failed attempts to silence his critics through libel suits. Among its findings:
- In 1984, Trump sued the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic Paul Gapp for ridiculing Trump’s proposal to build a 150-story skyscraper in Manhattan. Trump claimed he was owed $500 million in damages. The Tribune won easily; a federal judge reminded Trump that “men in public life … must accept as an incident of their service harsh criticism.” But battling the suit cost the newspaper $60,000 in legal fees.
- In 2006, Trump sued author Timothy O’Brien (and his publisher) for writing that Trump was not actually a billionaire. Trump alleged $5 billion in damages. His suit was thrown out after Trump couldn’t prove that he was a billionaire.
- In 2013, Bill Maher joked on air that he would donate $5 million to charity if Trump could provide his birth certificate to prove that he was not the “spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan.” Trump’s attorneys sent Maher a copy of his birth certificate and demanded the $5 million donation. When Maher refused, Trump sued him for breach of contract (a suit he quickly withdrew).
There’s more in the report; take a look yourself.
The report concludes that more states need stronger anti-SLAPP laws, which allow defendants to easily defeat frivolous lawsuits designed to suppress speech. Its broader conclusion, however, is that Trump routinely files ridiculous suits in order to censor critics and protect his extraordinarily delicate ego. That is demonstrably true, and truth is an absolute defense to libel lawsuits. Yet the ABA would rather cower in fear than speak the truth about an egomaniac and face litigation. That’s as sure a sign as any that our libel laws do need updating—to protect them from abuse at the hands of thin-skinned bullies like Donald Trump.