Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Monday forcefully reiterated his promise to “open libel laws” to make it easier to sue members of the press, a recent campaign talking point that has given members of the media and First Amendment advocates serious pause.
“The press is amazingly dishonest. The press is a real problem in this country,” Trump said while addressing supporters at a campaign rally in Radford, Va. “I’m dealing with some real sleazebags up here…[but] they’re worse than the politicians."
"And not all, not all, but 80 percent,” he added.
The real estate mogul has regularly said in recent days that libel laws do not sufficiently protect political candidates from false reports. Trump has regularly scuffled with reporters assigned to write stories about him, frequently dismissing critical stories by accusing reporters of inherent bias against him. In many instances, the billionaire tycoon has threatened individual reporters and their media outlets with lawsuits.
“They can write everything they want and you can’t sue them because the libel laws essentially don’t exist,” he said Monday. "When people write incorrectly about you, and you can prove that they wrote incorrectly, we’re going to get them through the court system to change, and we’re going to get them to pay damages.”
Current libel laws already prevent reporters from writing knowingly false stories. Trump has not released a detailed proposal regarding the extent to which he would “open” libel laws and weaken protections. The First Amendment protects the media's right to cover "public figures," including presidential candidates.
Trump's message is one that will likely resonate with his supporters and the American public at large. A Gallup poll conducted in September showed that just 40 percent of Americans feel "a great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in the media's reporting, a historical low. Trump regularly points at the media risers during campaign rallies, where members of the press corps watch, many of whom follow him around the country as embeds or beat reporters, and encourages supporters to jeer.
Costly lawsuits would present a significant threat to an industry already facing harsh economic realities, fierce competition and increasingly tight budgets. The median annual salary for reporters and correspondents is $36,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We’re not going to do anything with freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is vital, it’s important, it’s a cleansing system, it’s totally something that we can’t touch,” Trump added at one point.