How Clifford v. Trump Affects You and Me

Or How I really didn't want to go there but this is where we are as a country
This is such an exciting picture

In the news this week is the announcement that a federal judge has dismissed Stormy Daniels' defamation suit against Donald Trump.

For posterity's sake, I'll summarize: Daniels accuses Trump of being involved in an illegal threat to silence Daniels regarding an illicit affair between the two. Trump calls Daniels a liar on Twitter. Daniels sues trump for defamation. Trump moves to dismiss the case. Court rules in favor to dismiss.

This kind of degrading amoral nonsense should not be worthy of news, but somehow it is still a headline. This is America today. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

But unlike some of the other national headlines that have been floating around of late, this one actually has the capacity to directly affect you and me.

In law, legal precedent is just a fancy way of saying "all of the previous court rulings that may be related to this" and it's a common guideline in courts. Basically, a judge is likely to rule in a similar way to how other judges have ruled on similar cases in the past. (Sometimes courts break with precedent, but that's a discussion for another time.) In this case, there is sufficient legal precedent to guide the court's decision in this matter. Otero's decision to dismiss the case does not set any new legal precedent.

But legal precedent isn't the only impact that court cases can have. Sufficiently public and famous court cases can also set a *social* precedent. What I mean by "Social precedent" is simply that a court ruling can influence our culture in meaningful ways, especially if it is exceptionally well known such as the cases of Florida v. Zimmerman or UNITED STATES v. Koon. You might be more familiar with these as the Trayvon Martin trial or the Rodney King trial, both of which still echo through our social fabric and directly impact our political discourse.

The Daniels/Trump ruling sets an unnerving social precedent: it legitimizes bullying.

The relevant statements from the ruling are:

"Mr. Trump's tweet constitutes 'rhetorical hyperbole,' which is 'extravagant exaggeration [that is] employed for rhetorical effect.'"


"If this Court were to prevent Mr. Trump from engaging in this type of "rhetorical hyperbole" against a political adversary, it would significantly hamper the office of the President. Any strongly-worded response by a president to another politician or public figure would constitute an action for defamation. This would deprive this country of the 'discourse' common to the political process." ... "Such a holding would violate the First Amendment."

Trump's tweet constitutes First Amendment protected free speech. This is true. But it is not constructive free speech (exchanging ad hominems is decidedly demonstrably destructive). Trump's tweet may be part of our country's political discourse, but that doesn't make it a productive part of that discourse.

What this ruling does for our collective American culture is legitimize destructive, argumentative derogatory speech as "essential" to our political discourse. Its lasting impact will be to encourage the American public to engage more deeply in this unproductive angry communication, furthering the divide between Americans. Those who already use inflammatory insults in their political conversation will be emboldened to do so more, and those who don't yet indulge in the exchange of aspersions will soon be enjoined to the chaos (with Daniels' "hi tiny" response to Trump's "horsehead" tweet leading the charge).

Would I have the court rule in favor of Daniels and conclude that Trump's statement was defamatory? No, the court is correct that it was protected free speech. But just because something is legal, or even constitutionally protected, does not make it right.

This court ruling lowers the bar for political discourse in America. So it is up to the rest of us to raise it again and restore some respectability (and some respect) to our conversation.




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