That’s the Authors Guild position regarding President Trump’s threats to “change libel laws.” We’re confident because the president seems unaware that he has no role in libel law, nor does Congress. Libel, slander, and defamation are all governed by state laws, and since 1964 state laws have in turn been governed by the landmark Supreme Court decision in Sullivan v. New York Times. Ever since, public figures have been able to prevail in libel suits only if they can leap three imposing hurdles: they must establish that the defendant published something that damaged the plaintiff’s reputation; that what was published was false; and that the defendant knew the statement was false or showed “reckless disregard for the truth” by publishing it despite having reason to believe it might be false.
We remain vigilant, though, because libel law is so vitally important to writers—and because presidents do appoint Supreme Court justices, and the Senate confirms them. As it happens, Judge Gorsuch’s record on the appellate bench, as well as his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggest that he supports the definitions of libel law enumerated in Sullivan. But whenever the subject is up for discussion, we have to be concerned about potential changes in public attitudes. We will consequently continue to monitor the situation closely, and coordinate our approach with other organizations dedicated to protecting the First Amendment.