By proposing a fresh look at longstanding libel laws and by appointing Steve Bannon as senior counselor and chief strategist, President-elect Donald Trump is nudging the nation towards totalitarianism, Professor Chapin Cimino wrote in an op-ed essay published in the U.S. News & World Report on Nov. 18.
The former chairman of Breitbart News, Bannon created fake news that advanced hate-group propaganda that “plays to a reader’s worst fears and excites his darkest prejudices,” Cimino wrote.
Combined with Trump’s proposal to “open up” libel laws, Cimino added, “the threat to a free and authentic press is real."
Libel law, constitutionalized through the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark New York Times Co. v. Sullivan decision, requires that public officials and public figures claiming defamation must show that errors or falsehoods are the result of actual malice, Cimino explained.
“In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the court reasoned that because public discussion is our political duty, we must allow ‘breathing room’ for honest mistakes,” Cimino wrote. “The most potent threat to our democracy now is not that libel law lacks the power to force an apology out of a speaker who made a routine mistake in reporting on a public figure. It is instead the attitude toward authentic journalism held by the president-elect himself, as shown most clearly with his decision to set Bannon up with an office in the West Wing.”
Cimino, an expert on the First Amendment and media law, said social media platforms like Facebook and Google should go beyond their recent pledge to exclude fake news sites from their advertising services.
“Under the Communications Decency Act, for example, Internet service providers have long had the power to take down insidious and abusive content without risk of retaliatory liability,” Cimino wrote. “Sadly, since they were granted this power by Congress in 1999, they have misused it. Instead of using it take down abusive content and protect users (we who make them money), they have used it to justify a hands-off approach altogether, paving the way for the trolls and perpetrators to weaponize the Internet.”
Calling for citizens to “educate ourselves” and “take back our power from social media companies that make billions of dollars in profit by selling our personal data,” Cimino recommends supporting authentic news organizations by buying news subscriptions as holiday gifts.