White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed Monday that the Trump administration is actively—and in his words “substantively”—reviewing the nation’s libel laws as it explores ways it could more easily sidestep First Amendment protections and target press coverage or news stories it deems objectionable.
On Sunday morning, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told ABC‘s “This Week” that reworking libel law legislation is “something that we’ve looked at, and how that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story.”
As a way to get official clarification of those remarks, New York Times correspondent Glenn Thrush asked Spicer during Monday’s press briefing if it was a “project that is currently being working on by the [White House Counsel's Office]” and what the general status of the effort might be.
“I think the chief of staff made it very clear that is something that is being looked into substantively and then both logistically about how it would happen,” Spicer responded.
Spicer downplayed the question, however, adding, “that’s nothing new. It’s something the president talked about on the campaign trail.”
Indeed, Trump did talk about making it easier to file lawsuits against journalists and media outlets during the campaign—and it was something that sparked widespread outrage and concern.
During a campaign rally in February of 2016, Trump said, “One of the things I’m going to do if I win, and I hope we do and we’re certainly leading. I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”
Though concerning for even a presidential candidate in the heat of a campaign to say such things, the concerns have only grown now that the man talking about stripping away core constitutional protections occupies the Oval Office.
At the end of March, Trump re-floated the idea in a passing tweet as he criticized the ongoing coverage he receives from the Times.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) was among those who expressed immediate concern following Priebus’ comments on Sunday:
“This is marching America down the road to authoritarianism. Reince Preibus statements on stifling the press should alarm even Republicans. twitter.com/BuzzFeedNews/status/858704008420052992 . . . ”
And while some argued any effort to actually rewrite libel laws by the Trump administration would likely go nowhere, that didn’t stop at least one journalist from making sure Priebus understood why—given the administration’s documented position on free speech—Trump’s chief of staff would have no grounds to file suit when called a “lunkhead” or “a ninny” or “a birdbrain.”
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Jon Queally is senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams.