Pollak: Trump Takes Antonin Scalia’s View on Libel and the First Amendment

justice scalia
Paul Morigi/Getty

President Donald Trump’s critics attacked him over the weekend for a tweet in which he complained — not for the first time — about the legality of the media’s bias against his administration, suggesting it be “tested in court.”

In recent years, Trump has made similar complaints about the difficulty of suing journalists in American courts for libel.

In response, Trump’s critics, right and left, accused him of attacking the free press and the First Amendment:

But Trump is doing no more than adopting the view of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative hero celebrated for his originalist reading of the U.S. Constitution. As the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple noted in 2012, Scalia opposed the Court’s decision in the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case. He explained his opinion in an interview with Charlie Rose of CBS News, as summarized by Wemple (original link):

In a recent ‘Charlie Rose’ interview that might well horrify tabloid executives across the land, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made clear that he “abhors” that ruling.

Here’s how the justice short-hands the court’s finding: “You can libel public figures at will so long as somebody told you something, some reliable person told you the lie that you then publicized to the whole world — that’s what New York Times v. Sullivan says.”

It’s not that Scalia takes issue with the principles behind the decision. They may well be sound and constructive, he says. But that doesn’t mean that the Supreme Court had any business messing around with centuries-old understandings of free speech.

When the First Amendment was ratified, he argues, “Nobody thought that libel, even libel of public figures, was permitted, was sanctioned by the First Amendment. Where did that come from? Who told Earl Warren and the Supreme Court that what had been accepted libel law for a couple hundred years was no longer accepted.”

The Business Insider noted Scalia believed that “[a]t the time it was adopted, nobody thought that the First Amendment would encompass the ability to libel somebody.”

Right or wrong, Trump’s view ought not be scandalous — especially to conservatives.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.