ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says he wants to open up libel laws. That's so that he can sue news organizations that have written what he calls hit pieces. Well, laws today make it difficult for public figures to sue for damages. And NPR's Brian Naylor reports a President Trump likely would have a hard time changing them.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: When he appeared before the editorial board of The Washington Post this week, Donald Trump was asked to explain what he wanted to do with the nation's libel laws. Trump told the Post, which put a tape of the meeting online, that if a paper gets story wrong, they should put out a retraction.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: They should at least try to get it right. And if they don't do a retraction, they should, you know, have a form of a trial. I don't want to impede free press, by the way. That's - the last thing I would want to do is that.
NAYLOR: Trump went on to say all he wants is fairness.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: It's so unfair. I have stories, and I have - you have no recourse. You have no recourse whatsoever because the laws are really impotent.
NAYLOR: Impotent, perhaps, from the view of someone who feels maligned, but quite the opposite for journalists. In 1964, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a public figure has to prove an offending statement was made with actual malice - that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. Bruce Sanford is a Washington libel lawyer.
BRUCE SANFORD: They have to prove that at the time of publication, the reporter, the newspaper, the broadcaster knew that they were making a mistake or were reckless in making that mistake. That's a very tough standard, and most public officials can't - don't have a prayer of proving that.
NAYLOR: Sanford says libel law is very well-settled, signed onto by liberal and conservative justices. He says to change it, a president would have to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would be willing to overturn years of precedence - or take a different approach.
SANFORD: If you don't like speech, the answer is not to censor that speech or to try to silence it. What our traditions call for is more speech.
NAYLOR: But Trump has taken a different tack in the past. Just ask Timothy O'Brien. In 2005, he wrote "TrumpNation: The Art Of Being The Donald," which, among other things, raised questions about Trump's claims of vast wealth. Trump promptly sued O'Brien.
O'BRIEN: And I think it was - it is the largest libel lawsuit in U.S. history. He sued me for $5 billion.
NAYLOR: Five billion dollars with a B?
O'BRIEN: With a B, so that was the substantially higher than the advance I got for the book.
NAYLOR: The lawsuit was dismissed, as was an earlier libel suit Trump filed against the Chicago Tribune and its architecture critic. O'Brien, now executive editor with Bloomberg View, says he was fortunate in that his publishers paid his legal bills.
O'BRIEN: I think fewer and fewer news organizations have the resources to aggressively mount defenses against well-heeled plaintiffs who are willing to spend a lot of money to simply make a point.
NAYLOR: And a similar libel suit against a writer or a reporter with a small newspaper might have a chilling effect, even if the law is on their side. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.