After embarrassing herself by giving a speech that plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech, Melania Trump has found herself involved in another First Amendment matter. Only this time, Mrs. Trump is the complainant, rather than the perpetrator. Melania Trump is currently pursuing a defamation lawsuit against both a blogger based in Maryland and a British newspaper for claiming that she was a prostitute in the 1990s and has recently suffered a mental breakdown partially because of a risk of exposure of said alleged career.
Webster Tarpley, a political blogger based out of Maryland, wrote in a blog post on August 2 that Melania Trump was on the verge of a nervous breakdown in part due to a risk of exposing her alleged career as a high-end escort. Two weeks after Mr. Tarpley’s blog post was published, the Daily Mail, a British newspaper known for publishing salacious celebrity gossip alongside actual news, also ran an article about Melania Trump.
The article alluded to Mrs. Trump working as a prostitute instead of strictly as a model during the ‘90s, as her modeling agency supposedly was a front for a call-girl agency. The Daily Mail cited a Slovenian magazine and an unauthorized biographer as its credible sources. When a number of news outlets began picking up and running both the blog post and the article, Mrs. Trump filed a libel lawsuit against both the Daily Mail and Mr. Tarpley.
Liable for Libel?
In order to be successful in her lawsuit, Melania Trump will need to prove the different elements, or parts, of a libel case.
First, Mrs. Trump must prove that the statements made about her career and mental health are false. This can be easily proven by providing evidence to the contrary, such as doctors’ reports about Melania’s mental state, copies of her resume to illustrate the work she actually did during the 1990s, and testimony provided by witnesses who knew Mrs. Trump during the time that she is accused of having been a prostitute or period during which she is said to have had a mental breakdown.
Second, Melania will need to prove that the statements were actually published to a third party. The “to a third party” portion of the element simply means that the publication must be done with the intent of sharing a libelous statement with a person other than the subject of the statement and the party making the statement. This is the easiest element to prove for Mrs. Trump, as she can simply show that Webster Tarpley’s blog post and the Daily Mail’s article were both made available to the general public with the intent of having a number of different people read the post and the article.
Third, Mrs. Trump will need to prove that the Daily Mail and Mr. Tarpley acted with actual malice when making the statements about her current state of mental health and her past employment. Mrs. Trump is required to prove actual malice because, as the wife of the Republican candidate running for president and a model, she is a public figure.
In order to prove actual malice in a libel case, one must show that the defendant published the statement while either knowing that the statement was not true or without caring at all as to whether it was false or not. While it may be easy for Melania Trump to show that Mr. Tarpley acted with malice, as the blogger only vaguely references Twitter posts and a comment allegedly made by the rapper 50 Cent as the evidence upon which he has chosen to base his assertions of Mrs. Trump’s prostitute past and recent mental breakdown.
The Daily Mail, on the other hand, relied upon both an unauthorized biographer and a Slovenian magazine as its sources. One would assume that a biographer, even an unauthorized one, would likely have done substantial research on their chosen subject, including possibly digging up some unsavory details about the subject’s past. Also, the magazine is based out of Mrs. Trump’s home country, meaning that it probably has access to sources and information that Mrs. Trump may not have considered. Thus, the Daily Mail, especially as it is an internationally-known publication, likely did engage in some effort to determine the veracity of the allegations it made with regard to Melania Trump working as an escort prior to marrying Donald Trump.
Any claims that the publication was unable to verify were labeled as unsubstantiated and all claims were assigned to their respective sources without the Daily Mail overtly asserting that all of these claims are absolutely true in an apparent attempt to avoid committing libel. Since it appears that the Daily Mail did make an effort to avoid posting anything that it knew was a lie, Melania Trump may not be able to successfully prove that the Daily Mail engaged in actual malice. However, it will be up to the judge in charge of trying the case to determine if the Daily Mail’s efforts were enough to avoid committing actual malice.
Fourth, Melania Trump needs to prove that the publication of Mr. Tarpley’s blog and the Daily Mail’s publication caused her to suffer actual damage. It is not always enough to simply state that one is hurt by false statements if it cannot be inferred as to how these statements could have harmed the person.
Indeed, what with the different scandalous items about Melania Trump that have come to light recently, it may not be entirely clear as to just how these statements have seriously harmed her in a manner that would have not happened if these statements had never been made. Thus, it is not surprising that Mrs. Trump’s lawyers have already alluded to the statements affecting Melania’s efforts to license her name and likeness in the complaint as a way to show that she is harmed by the publication of the statements. However, Melania may need to go a step further to provide actual examples of licensing attempts that have been negatively impacted by the statements.
Any case involving defamation is difficult and complicated, as proven by Melania Trump’s attempt to bring one of her own. This type of case often requires the assistance of a lawyer who knows how to protect a client’s public image while not being seen as trying to stifle free speech. If you feel that, like Mrs. Trump, you have recently been harmed by a false statement or other form of defamation and are interested in protecting your reputation or receiving financial compensation for that harm, contact a personal injury attorney right away.