Shockingly, Donald Trump is involved in a silly lawsuit. Crazy, right? He seemed like such a level-headed and down-to-earth guy. I guess you can’t judge someone based solely on their public persona.
Kidding aside, Donald Trump has lost a lawsuit in which he sued the author of a book which had the sheer audacity to claim that The Donald isn’t actually a billionaire, and is worth $250 million, at most.
In general, to successfully sue for defamation, you must prove several different things. First, you have to prove that the allegedly defamatory statement was actually about you, or that a reasonable listener would come to the conclusion that it was about you. Then, you must prove that the statement was actually defamatory, meaning that, if someone hears and believes the statement, it will significantly harm your reputation.
In this case, Donald Trump had no problem proving that a statement was made, that other people read it, or that it was about him. The main issue he had was proving that, by claiming his net worth to be less than one billion dollars, the author of the book damaged his reputation.
It’s pretty tough to argue that your reputation has been damaged by someone claiming that you’re worth less than a billion dollars. Of course, Mr. Trump’s best argument would probably be to claim that the accusation that he is worth less money than he holds himself out to be is tantamount to calling him a liar.
Calling someone a liar, without any reason to believe that they are, is probably grounds for a defamation suit.
However, there’s another issue with Donald Trump that makes it very difficult for him to file a defamation suit: he is a public figure.
In general, it’s nearly impossible for a public figure to successfully sue for defamation, unless they show that the speaker acted with “actual malice,” meaning they knew that their statements were false, or they recklessly disregarded the truth. And they must prove this allegation by “clear and convincing evidence,” which is a higher standard of proof than is usually used in civil cases.
This is by design: generally, we want it to be very difficult for public figures to sue for defamation, because the First Amendment right to free speech is generally considered more important than the reputation of a single famous person. After all, the right to free speech is generally considered most important when it concerns speech about public figures, or matters of public concern.
These are the things from which society benefits most when free debate and discussion of matters that concern the public are able to occur without any interference. However, that doesn’t mean that public figures have no recourse. As mentioned, if they can prove that the speaker was deliberately lying, they have a case for defamation. When they can’t prove this, it’s assumed that most public figures have enough access to the media that they can get their side of any story out there at least as well as the average person who’s going to be discussing them.
Because the average person isn’t presumed to have these resources, it is usually much easier for them to sue for defamation.
This balancing act is very important. We want people, even celebrities, to be able to protect their reputations from malicious smear campaigns. At the same time, it’s extremely important that we don’t let a situation arise where the extent of one’s right to free speech is dependant on how good a lawyer they can afford.