A lawsuit filed by President Donald Trump's re-election campaign against The New York Times alleging libel against the president is unusual, considering a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1964 that makes it very difficult for public figures to win libel cases.
Roosevelt's Bully Pulpit
A president accusing the press of libel isn't completely unprecedented. It occurred more than a century ago, when Theodore Roosevelt went after The New York World and The Indianapolis News, accusing them of libel for writing about the possibility of corruption in the building of the Panama Canal during Roosevelt's tenure in the White House.
The circumstances were different: Roosevelt didn't sue the newspapers. So angered was Roosevelt by the newspapers' charges of corruption that he tried to figure out a way to get them prosecuted criminally — even though there is no federal libel statute.
"I do not know anything about the law of criminal libel, but I should like to have it involed against Pulitzer, of the World," Roosevelt wrote to U.S. Attorney Henry Stimson, according to a paper on the case in the "Indiana Magazine of History."
Criminal Libel Attempt
And in 1909, shortly before Roosevelt left office, he pushed for a grand jury, which was impaneled in Washington, D.C., seeking criminal indictments against newspaper officials,. The indictments were returned soon after. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte, a distant relative of Napoleon, contorted an 1898 harbor and fort defense law to charge the newspaper writers.
A Judge Albert B. Anderson dismissed the cases without even addressing the question of libel, saying the federal government can't just charge people for crimes in whatever jurisdiction it wants.
Since then, even the presidents with the most acrimonious relationships with the press have been unable to use libel claims in their battles.
NYT v. Sullivan
Even President Richard Nixon knew that case law wouldn't be on his side if he'd tried to sue over Watergate stories. Nixon complained about that case law, saying it gave newspapers "virtually a license to lie," and discussed possible libel law changes. But he resigned before he could do that.
The libel case law that most makes it difficult for Trump or any other public official to win a lawsuit comes from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in an Alabama state case, "New York Times v. Sullivan," in 1964.
That standard requires that public officials prove that published statements that are false and defame them are published maliciously or recklessly.
"The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the 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," Justice William Brennan wrote in the Supreme Court's decision.
Trump's campaign alleges exactly that, stating that a New York Times editorial was published with "reckless regard for the truth."
President Donald Trump speaks at an African American History Month reception Thursday. White House photo by Tia Dufour.