Donald Trump is a very important man. Two casino hotels in Atlantic City bear his name. On Fifth Avenue in New York, the Trump Tower has diminished its next door neighbor, Tiffany's. A 1985 biography of Donald Trump is forthrightly titled, "Trump: The Saga of America's Most Powerful Real Estate Baron." Indeed, his success gives verisimilitude to a tale I heard as a boy of a man so rich that when he gave his children blocks for Christmas, they were actual city blocks.
When so important a man saw his name treated with no respect in the Chicago Tribune, he did not take this act of lese majesty lying down. He summoned his attorney.
Paul Gapp, the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic, was writing about a proposed 150-story Manhattan skyscraper that Donald Trump had discussed with a New York Times reporter in an interview that appeared before Gapp's piece. Trump's new building would be the tallest in the whole world -- 1,940 feet -- and would rise at the southeast end of Manhattan Island.
According to Gapp, "The world's tallest tower would be one of the silliest things anyone could inflict on New York or any other city," and he described the concept of the building as "Guinness Book of World Records architecture." (There was an accompanying Tribune artist's illustration.) Gapp, moreover, had told a reporter for The Wall Street Journal that Trump's newest venture was "aesthetically lousy" and that the central part of Chicago "has already been loused up by giantism."
Donald Trump filed suit against Paul Gapp and against the Chicago Tribune. Trump charged that the article had damaged his reputation as a developer, and he further claimed that because of the churlish piece, plans for the record-breaking skyscraper had been "torpedoed." The effect of Gapp's criticism had been so devastating that Trump felt compelled to ask for $500 million.
The lawsuit came to Federal District Court Judge Edward Weinfeld. A passionately careful student of the law, Judge Weinfeld, even at the age of 84, arrives in his chambers at 4:30 every morning so that he will have enough time to research, read Supreme Court opinions and write his own before he takes the bench. Justice William Brennan has said: "There is general agreement on bench and bar throughout this nation that there is no better judge on any court."
Well, that's the luck of the draw.
In his recent decision, Judge Weinfeld emphasized that the First Amendment protects expressions of opinion, "however unreasonable or vituperative since they cannot be subjected to the test of truth or falsity." It's "when the criticism takes the form of accusations of criminal or unethical conduct, or derogation of professional integrity in terms subject to factual verification" that "the borderline between fact and opinion has been crossed."
Paul Gapp and the Chicago Tribune did not, said Judge Weinfeld, cross that line. The judge added that the very words to which Trump objects -- "one of the silliest things anyone could inflict on New York" -- manifestly "convey to the reader the highly personal and subjective nature of the judgments expressed. It must be clear to any reader that in the realm of architecture, as in all aesthetic matters, what is appealing to one viewer may be appalling to another."
Judge Weinfeld dismissed Donald Trump's complaint.
Donald Trump's attorney went back to the judge with a motion for reargument that was answered by the other side, and that answer was answered by Trump's side. Judge Weinfeld has now dismissed the motion for reargument.
By this point, the cost to the Chicago Tribune of defending itself and Gapp against this libel action has been about $60,000. That's cheap at a time when the average legal fee for a libel defense is $150,000. But here there has been very limited deposition, and no trial.
But what if someone had brought Trump's attention to irreverent remarks about that "Jack in the Beanstalk" tower in a small arts magazine or some other marginal publication for which a $60,000 legal bill and bankruptcy would arrive simultaneously?
Opinion may be entitled to "absolute immunity from liability," as Judge Weinfeld says, but if you are not well heeled, an expression of opinion can put you out of business.