Wealthy Americans like Donald Trump have increasingly used the courts to punish their media critics — and the threat they pose to press freedoms will only grow worse with his election.
The president-elect vaguely promised during his campaign to “open up libel laws” to weaken legal safeguards for writers and publishers, but public animosity against the press has already changed the dynamic in those cases, reported Emily Bazelon for the New York Times Magazine.
A jury awarded $140 million in March to former pro wrester Hulk Hogan, who sued the website Gawker over the publication of a sex tape, and one of the jurors said they used the case to make “an example in society and other media organizations.”
The News & Observer lost a libel suit in September filed by a former North Carolina ballistics agent and jurors ordered the newspaper to pay $9 million in damages, although the penalty exceeds the state’s cap of $6 million.
Bazelon points out that Britain’s standard of proof in libel cases is lower than in the U.S., but that country unofficially caps damages at about £250,000, plus legal fees.
Trump bragged that he had used a lawsuit to make life miserable for a biographer who concluded the real estate developer and former reality TV star was worth far less than he claimed.
That case was eventually dismissed in 2009, but Trump said he was satisfied with the outcome because the publisher was forced to spend money on legal fees to defend against his lawsuit.
He and his companies have filed six other libel suits but one only once, when the defendant failed to show up in court.
Trump’s wife has already sued or threatened to sue reporters, bloggers and YouTubers for unfavorable coverage, and one of Trump’s allies, tech billionaire Peter Thiel, bankrolled the lawsuit that put Gawker out of business.
Media companies typically carry insurance against libel suits and factor that risk into the cost of doing business, but one of Gawker’s former editors said the website’s demise offered a cautionary tale.
“What Thiel’s covert campaign against Gawker did was to invisibly change the terms of the risk calculation,” said Tom Scocca, the former editor. “You live in a country where a billionaire can put a publication out of business.”