Should libel, slander, or defamation laws be “loosened up” to protect public figures?
No. This shouldn’t even be discussed as an issue by politicians, particularly Presidential candidates, and definitely not candidates running as Republicans. Even most liberals have accepted that 1st Amendment rights should be protected, though their motives for believing this are often to protect their own agenda.
Of all the rights given to us by the Constitution and the amendments, freedom of the press is arguably the closest to being perfect. The basic framework laid out by the 1st Amendment led to dozens of court decisions that have honed the proper level of protections. For example, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in 1964 declared that a public figure acting as a plaintiff has the burden of proving a publisher acted with “actual malice.” This means that if the press publishes something that is demonstrated to be false, they are only liable if there was intent to hurt a public figure as the motivation for making the claims.
On the surface, this might seem very unfair. A publication can publish false information as long as doing so was not intended specifically to harm a public figure. Before we charge in and declare that only facts are allowed to be published and the burden should be on the press to be infallible, we must look at the consequences of such a stance. It would yield an impotent press, one that will avoid reporting negatively about public figures even if they are nearly certain they have their facts straight.
Extrapolate it out further. When the press exists in a state of fear, their natural recourse will be to seek protections outside of the Constitution. It will become more prudent and profitable to work with the government. Over time, it will become more prudent and profitable to work within the government. The press, in all of its honorable and dishonorable forms, must remain an outside entity. That doesn’t mean that it will be unbiased. Conservatives are well aware of the challenges we face with mainstream media bias. However, fear of bias or acceptance of further degradation of their abilities to report will lead us down the road towards state-run media.
As with most issues, the knee-jerk reactions are rarely the correct ones. The restraints that are currently placed on the American press are as close to perfect as we can expect. That’s not to say they won’t need to be improved in the future; Obsidian Finance Group, LLC v. Cox in 2014 extended the rules, rights, and restrictions of bloggers to be counted as journalists. As technology and society changes, more needs will arise that must be addressed, but any action to remove or restrict the rights of the 4th and 5th estates must be fought, not embraced.