Skip to main content

Judge Schooled Trump About Press Freedoms 32 Years Ago … But He Never Learned His Lesson


Image of Donald Trump via Albert H. Teich/ShutterstockIn recent days, Donald Trump has gone on another tirade about if how he were President he would make it easier to sue the media.  He’s threatened to sue The New York Times and all 14 of the women who have accused him of sexually assaulting them. While he claims to be a “tremendous believer in the freedom of the press,” he’s been involved in thousands of lawsuits, and sent numerous cease and desist letters to various media organizations, including this one.

While Trump might seem like he doesn’t know much about libel laws, that’s not exactly true. 32 years ago, in his very first (failed) attempt to sue the media, an 84-year-old federal judge schooled the young real estate businessman about the freedoms of the press by reminding Trump that in public life, sometimes, he will be subject to harsh criticism and he must learn to accept it.

However, years later, he apparently still hasn’t learned his lesson. During the 2016 election, he’s still using the same old tired legal tactics (that have apparently not been working). In fact, over the past 30 years, Trump has filed seven speech-related lawsuits and failed to win a single one of them in public court, according to a recent study published by the Media Law Resource Center. So, let’s go back to what that wise judge said in Trump’s very first libel case.

In 1984, Trump filed a $500 million lawsuit against the Chicago Tribune and architecture critic Paul Gapp, who had written a piece making fun of Trump’s proposal to build the tallest building in the world. “The world’s tallest tower would be one of the silliest things anyone could inflict on New York or any other city,” Gapp wrote and he later described the idea of the building as “Guinness Book of World Records architecture.” Trump didn’t take well to that and sued the newspaper for defamation and falsity.  What happened next? Judge Edward Weinfeld gave Mr. Trump a little lesson on free speech when he dismissed the case. contributor Susan Seager pointed out in her research on the judge’s decision (in which he granted a motion to dismiss the case) a very interesting quote. The judge wrote in the opinion:

 “Men in public life … must accept as an incident of their service harsh criticism, ofttimes unfair and unjustified – at times false and defamatory – and this is particularly so when their activities or performance may … stir deep controversy” …. “De gustibus non est disputandum, there is no disputing about tastes.”

Again, the judge’s opinion was written in 1984, but it’s almost as if he said it during the 2016 election. Somehow Judge Weinfeld knew that Trump’s activities were going to continue to “stir deep controversy” that incited harsh criticism, “oftimes unfair and unjustified.”

The judge continued in his motion to dismiss, “[e]xpressions of one’s opinion of another, however unreasonable, or vituperative, since they cannot be subjected to the test of truth or falsity, cannot be held libelous and are entitled to absolute immunity from liability under the First Amendment.” As Trump continues to plow forward with promises to sue those that have spoken out against him, hopefully he will re-read Judge Weinfeld’s opinion, and remember some of the basic tenets of our freedoms here in America.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of this author. 

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

Filed Under:

Follow Law&Crime:

Rachel Stockman is President of Law&Crime which includes Law&Crime Productions, Law&Crime Network and Under her watch, the company has grown from just a handful of people to a robust production company and network producing dozens of true crime shows a year in partnership with major networks. She also currently serves as Executive Producer of Court Cam, a hit show on A&E, and I Survived a Crime, a new crime show premiering on A&E this fall. She also oversees production of a new daily syndicated show Law&Crime Daily, which is produced in conjunction with Litton Entertainment. In addition to these shows, her network and production company produce programs for Facebook Watch, Cineflix and others. She has spent years covering courts and legal issues, and was named Atlanta Press Club's 'Rising Star' in 2014. Rachel graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and Yale Law School.