It’s A Wonderful Libel? Trump Suggests Legal Action Against SNL For Latest Skit

I have previously criticized President Donald Trump for his calls for greater liability of the media for its coverage of the controversies surrounding his Administration.   This weekend, Trump was again suggesting the need for legal review as he was excoriated by Saturday Night Live in a skit based on the classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Fortunately, the courts have maintained core free speech and free press protections from such assaults, particularly in the realm of comedy and parody.  

The sketch with Ben Stiller (Michael Cohen), Robert De Niro (Robert Mueller) and Matt Damon (Brett Kavanaugh) poked fun at the various scandals and personalities in the White House.  It clearly did not amuse the President and Trump tweeted:

“A REAL scandal is the one-sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live. It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal? Only defame & belittle! Collusion?”

As a former television celebrity, Trump clearly understands how damaging comedy shows can be to an image.  For people like Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle, they soon became their parodies in the eyes of many Americans.  However, Trump’s continued desire to see the media or now entertainers sued for defamation is troubling and unfounded.

Courts have long protected opinion and parody. Ironically it is a case involving a conservative columnist that is often cited for such protection. the case dealt with the late conservative columnist Robert Novak. Novak made his reputation as one of the most biased and hard-hitting columnists from the right. In Ollman v. Evans, 750 F.2d 970 (D.C. Cir. 1984), Novak was sued and a court ruled in his favor on the basis that everyone knew he was not writing as a disinterested journalist. In Ollman, the court ruled:

The reasonable reader who peruses an Evans and Novak column on the editorial or Op-Ed page is fully aware that the statements found there are not “hard” news like those printed on the front page or elsewhere in the news sections of the newspaper. Readers expect that columnists will make strong statements, sometimes phrased in a polemical manner that would hardly be considered balanced or fair elsewhere in the newspaper. National Rifle Association v. Dayton Newspaper, Inc., supra, 555 F.Supp. at 1309. That proposition is inherent in the very notion of an “Op-Ed page.” Because of obvious space limitations, it is also manifest that columnists or commentators will express themselves in condensed fashion without providing what might be considered the full picture. Columnists are, after all, writing a column, not a full-length scholarly article or a book. This broad understanding of the traditional function of a column like Evans and Novak will therefore predispose the average reader to regard what is found there to be opinion.

Leno is even farther than Novak from the status as a news reporter.

There is also the protection given parodies and social commentaries. Thus, in Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), the Supreme Court held that a page on the late Rev. Jerry Falwell was clearly parody and protected despite the juvenile and disgusting content of the piece. The Court (both conservatives and liberals) found that such speech must be protected:

“At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.”

In other words, SNL and other comedy shows are fully protected in their parodies, even if they are more often hammering Trump or conservatives.  The alternative would be the regulation of speech by the government.  We have previously discussed the alarming rollback of  free speech rights in the West. Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws. We have seen comedians targeted with such court orders under this expanding and worrisome trend. (here and here).  We do not want to put this country on the same slippery slope toward speech regulation.

The standard for defamation for public figures and officials in the United States is the product of a decision decades ago in New York Times v. Sullivan. Ironically, this is precisely the environment in which the opinion was written and Trump is precisely the type of plaintiff that the opinion was meant to deter. The Supreme Court ruled that tort law could not be used to overcome First Amendment protections for free speech or the free press. The Court sought to create “breathing space” for the media by articulating that standard that now applies to both public officials and public figures. In order to prevail, someone like Trump must show either actual knowledge of its falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth.

Under the governing standards under the Constitution, the SNL skit does not even come close to an actionable case. Indeed, many courts would view a challenge as defamation to be a meritless or frivolous filing.

I cannot imagine it is easy to be parodied every night but understandable ill-humor is not excuse for speech controls.  However, complaining about comedy skits and parodies is like complaining about the weather.  Thankfully, it is largely harmless but ultimately fruitless in a nation still committed to free speech.

48 thoughts on “It’s A Wonderful Libel? Trump Suggests Legal Action Against SNL For Latest Skit”

  1. HEY KIDS LOOK AT WHAT CROOKED HILLARY DID!

    https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2018/12/17/christopher-steele-i-was-hired-to-help-hillary-clinton-challenge-the-2016-election-results/

    how can a candidate hire somebody to undermine an election result if she loses?
    talk about a fraud!

    I GUESS THAT WAS AGENT SZTROKE’S INSURANCE POLICY

    If the Meuller witch-hunt and Democrat sore losers don’t step off, ready to \
    BREAK OUT THE PITCHFORKS !

    this whole thing is far worse than watergate and it just got “worser”

    1. Hillary WON the popular vote. But for the outdated Electoral College, Trump would be toast. The Fusion GPS investigation was started by a fellow Republican who turned over the information Steele uncovered when he lost the nomination. Nothing Steele reported so far has been proven untrue. Trump is still a chronic liar with a bad comb-over and the worst excuse for a POTUS in U.S. history, with consistent and historically-low polling numbers and no real accomplishments. Why hasn’t Mexico cut us that check for the wall like your favorite POTUS promised, or, was he just lying?

  2. LIBERALS HAVE SNL..

    BUT TRUMP ‘HAD’ THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER

    The most powerful print publication in America might just be The National Enquirer. It functioned as a dirty-tricks shop for Donald J. Trump in 2016, which would have been the stuff of farce — the ultimate tabloid backs the ultimate tabloid candidate — if it hadn’t accomplished its goal.

    The Enquirer’s racks, under the current chief, David J. Pecker, were given over to the Trump campaign. This was a political gift even more valuable than the $150,000 that The Enquirer paid in a “catch-and-kill” deal with the former Playboy model Karen McDougal for her story of an affair with Mr. Trump.

    Wondering what The Enquirer’s covers were worth to the Trump campaign, I called Regis Maher, a co-founder of Do It Outdoors, the national mobile and digital billboard company. He said a campaign with that level of national prominence would cost $2.5 million to $3 million a month.

    With its online cohorts, American Media Inc. helped build a distortion machine that so polluted election news cycles that, for its more receptive audiences, Mrs. Clinton not only deserved to lose the White House, she deserved time in the big house.

    Before making her its main target, the machine chewed up Senator Ted Cruz. It ran unsubstantiated allegations of extramarital affairs against him at a time when he was proving himself Mr. Trump’s most stubborn Republican challenger.

    One passage in the Cruz story caught my eye. Citing a report in Radar Online — a gossip outlet also owned by A.M.I. — The Enquirer claimed that “an individual purporting to be a representative of the hacker group Anonymous posted a disturbing Twitter video that threatens to expose ‘very dirty secrets,’ including information about Ted ‘visiting prostitutes.’”

    Once Mr. Cruz was out of the way, two people familiar with A.M.I.’s operation told me, the company pulled up files on the Clintons that it had collected over decades — some two dozen cardboard boxes filled with promising material.

    A.M.I. began a painstaking effort to sort through the old clips and tips concerning “pay-for-play” deals, rumors of affairs and Vince Foster conspiracy theories. But as the campaign wore on, The Enquirer’s covers favored stories similar to those coursing through Infowars, Russian trolldom and, increasingly, your uncle’s Facebook feed.

    According to one headline, Hillary was “Corrupt! Racist! Criminal!” In another, she was “Eating Herself To Death!”

    The Enquirer also reported — make that “reported” — that she had suffered “three strokes,” had “liver damage from booze,” and was prone to “violent rages.”

    A couple of weeks before Election Day, as Russian bots pushed a narrative into Facebook of a “Clinton body count,” an Enquirer cover line screamed: “Hillary Hitman Tells All.”

    The false narratives built to a frenzy that included an appearance by the A.M.I. chief content officer Dylan Howard on Infowars and a cover promising that Mrs. Clinton and her aide Huma Abedin were “Going to Jail” for “Treason! Influence Peddling! Bribery!”

    Edited from: “More Powerful Than A Russian Troll Army: The National Enquirer”

    Today’s NEW YORK TIMES

  3. TRUMP IS STUPID TO RESPOND TO SNL

    The cast and writers of SNL are more than likely gleeful Trump responded as he did. Which goes to show what a thin-skinned, humorless twit Trump really is.

    I remember that week in the summer of 2016 when Trump attacked former Miss Universe Alicia Machado every day; tweeting that she was ‘fat’ and comparing her to a ‘hotel maid’. Trump was fierce with Machado as bullies usually are with those weaker than themselves.

    But when SNL parodies this nightmare Trump created, Trump reacts like a bullied bully. And that’s how it goes with bullies; they promptly crumble and cry when attacked by someone tougher.

    1. ah, clearly, you don’t get it. but keep on talking it up.

      for a guy who is always wrong- in your opinion– he sure keeps on truckin pretty darn well

      1. Don’t let the math get in the way of your seething hatred of our president. Just because it was a high rating compared to their other showings, doesn’t mean a whole bunch of people watch it.

        1. The ratings of most shows are lower compared to previous years. This is because there are far more channels than there used to be, plus a lot of people watch Internet TV.

          Thus there is a lot more competition.

        2. “Saturday Night Live was the #1 telecast of the night on the Big 4 networks in both metered-market households and 18-49 in the local people meters, topping all primetime shows on those nets in both categories.”

          As I said, do not let facts get in the way of Trumpian spin.

          Putin was going to overpay for that penthouse suite.

              1. I don’t know who you are, but I don’t believe you are a prosecutor & if you are I as a judge would do all I could to have you removed as you are a self described piece of sh*t!

                Within the last two weeks here on this blog you were here cheering at one point the DOJ/Mueller abandoning the USC’s Bill Of Rights that My Family under Patrick Henry Caused to be In Effect.

                I suggest you get you head straight or start heavy drinking attempting to fix it.

  4. For an alleged alpha male, Trump seems to spend a lot of time whining.

    The true mentally tough people aren’t bothered by other people’s feelings

  5. Two comments:1) “if you cannot take the heat,get out of the kitchen”;2) Quoting the late HHH,”the right to be heard does not include the right to be taken seriously”.

  6. Years ago Saturday Night Live had an actress on there named Gilda Radner who had a real classic line: Never Mind!
    If you do not agree with what the program says then fall back on that. The show needs to do a comedy routine on Trump and have a Gilda Radner standing (or Gilda) listen to a line of Trump’s criticism and then say: Never Mind!

  7. Since the Dems hate the first amendment just as much as they hate President Trump, they are likely to continue pushing the envelope till something happens they can then pretend to be against all the while doing whatever is necessary to get some kind of ban just like the Johnson amendment which ought to be declared unconstitutional. Too bad Mr. Turley doesn’t bring that up.

  8. SCOTUS has a different makeup than it did when the famous cases listed were heard. Some chipping away at the edges of the libel laws wouldn’t hurt much.

    1. You are an idiot. For that reason, I would love to limit your first amendment rights. Too bad the law prevents that.

      1. Andrew – I am sorry, but you are clearly mistaken. There is no definition of the term idiot under which I fit. That includes ancient and modern definitions. I am afraid you have libeled me and I am going to have to sue Turley to get your IP address to sue you. 😉 Does that make you feel better?

  9. While SNL is brilliantly entertaining, decency suggests that it’s in poor taste to mock those who are burdened with mental illness. Mr Trump may need a straight jacket and padded cell more than he needs mocking.

    1. There was an SNL skit in 1980 mocking the candidates groveling for votes in the New Hampshire primary.
      The leading candidates were all at a family’s home, offering to do chores to get their votes.
      The wife was unable to drive her daughter to school, and Teddy Kennedy offered to take her.
      The panicked mother said “No, No, that’s OK!”.
      “John Connelly”chimed in and said “Yeah, Sen. Kennedy is somewhat accident-prone.”
      A bit later Connelly spilled a glass of water, and “Sen. Kennedy” laughed and said “I guess Mr. Connelly is accident-prone as well”.
      Connelly shot back and said “Well at least nobody drowned!”.
      Even for SNL, that was pushing it. You could actually hear the audience groaning as well as laughing.

      1. The National Lampoon comment with the photo of the floating Volkswagen Beetle, ‘If Ted Kennedy had been driving a VW Beetle, Mary Joe Kopeckni would be alive today.’ really was pushing it too far, but funny, nevertheless. Given the players, no body deserves it more than Trump. No quarter.

  10. When the media uses its free speech protections for no other purpose but to rig elections in Liberal favor, it’s time to make the same distinction that is made against yelling fire in a theater.

    If the Right would have the mainstream media in its court to the extent that Democrats now have it, the Left would never win another election. This may well be where the nation is headed if the MSM is allowed to abuse it’s free speech protection to swamp our nation with illegal immigration, job-killing taxation, and every other citizen a village idiot on drugs and welfare.

  11. Freedom of the press does not include inciting to insurrection and subversion of the duly elected government, while fraudulently favoring its political opposition and communistic, anti-Constitutional ideology. When the press ceases to maintain its neutrality and objectivity it is no longer the press but a political propaganda device and indoctrination apparatus.

    The grand irony is that China’s communist government replicates the original American restricted-vote republic without the Constitution. And China’s representative government, elected by a group of citizens entitled to vote, would have thrown a press like the American mainstream media in prison a long time ago.

    1. PRC constitution Article 35. Freedom of speech, press, assembly

      Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

            1. but you have to understand
              THAT IS PART OF THE REASON WE HAVE FREE SPEECH TOO!

              so that people can self identify as having the “wrong” opinions
              social media amplifies this, too…..

              (and now you know why so many of us use fake names here: we don’t really believe our “Free speech” is really quite as “free” as the propaganda states)

              “free” …. nothing is really “free.” you pay one way or another.

        1. the poor journalists. they can join the million or so uighurs that are locked up for…. being muslim. china, doesn’t play games. it punishes its adversaries instead of coddling them

          in a few decades a lot of the liberal fantasies will have evaporated. the journalistic privilege of acting like a fool with no consequences is one that will go away, perhaps, sooner than expected

    2. With all these platforms like facebook, apple, google/youtube/ABC corp, twitter etc…., banning conservatives, Christians, gun owners, anti- Demos, anti- commie/fascist American hating trash, proud boys, etc…, there are rules about this.

      The way it’s currently written is that if it’s public common opened to everyone they have liability protection, but if those corps starting banning certain people/groups those corps are then considered Publishers & lose liability protection.

      Also Trump maybe get certain people’s attention because these networks only operate under the privilege of a licences grant to operate by the Public & there’s something in there about providing a service to the public.

      But as with most all these public airways the public isn’t hardly even allowed comments.

      Worst these networks have every appearance of colluding to attack the above mentioned groups by engaging in electioneering, racketeering, antitrust, espionage among other illegal activities.

    3. “inciting to insurrection”….”subversion of the duly-elected government”….”FRAUDULENTLY favoring its political opposition and communistic anti-Constitutional ideology”?

      I’m really beginning to wonder whether someone who is as rabid a Trump fan as you, George, by necessity also needs to be just as crazy as he is.

      1. Jay S, that line was completely used up during Obama’s term. If it didn’t happen with that charlatan, it ain’t gonna happen.

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