Melania Trump’s lawyer, who just won a reported $2.9 million libel lawsuit settlement for the first lady, says news organizations should “take notice” of recent libel settlements and that “news organizations that act recklessly should be concerned about the consequences of their actions.”
Charles Harder, the Los Angeles lawyer for Melania Trump, who also helped bring down Gawker.com, told TheWrap, that “journalists, editors and publishers should take notice of the various recent lawsuits, jury verdicts and settlements, and act responsibly and ethically.”
“News organizations that do not lie about people and harm their reputations have nothing to worry about,” Harder added. He urged reporters to “read the Code of Ethics put out by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and follow it. Attorneys are required to follow a set of legal standards. Doctors are required to do the same. Journalists — who write stories that can hurt or destroy a person’s reputation — should do the same.”
Harder represented Melania Trump in her $300-million libel and infliction of emotional distress lawsuit against the British tabloid the Daily Mail. She sued over an August 19, 2016 report in Mail Online that referenced her working as an “elite escort” during her stint as a model in New York before meeting Donald Trump.
Melania Trump alleged in a revised version of her complaint that the article falsely implied she was a “hooker.”
Several media outlets, including CNN, reported that the Daily Mail agreed to pay Melania Trump $2.9 million in damages and costs to settle her case in a confidential settlement announced this week.
The settlement of Melania Trump v. Mail Media comes during the same week that Rolling Stone announced that it had settled a libel lawsuit filed by an administrator at the University of Virginia. The administrator sued Rolling Stone after the magazine admitted that much of its article about a fraternity gang rape and the supposed callousness of the administrator was false.
The case settled several months after the jury awarded the administrator $3 million in damages. The terms of the settlement are confidential.
Other media lawyers agree with Harder that reputable media organizations should not worry too much about the $3-million Rolling Stone verdict or the settlement of the Daily Mail and Rolling Stone libel cases.
“I think that the law has been the same for quite a long time,” Los Angeles attorney Bert Fields told TheWrap. “I don’t think this is bad news particularly for the media. If the media has a reliable source, they have a privilege to print something. If they don’t have a reliable source, the plaintiff can sue them, rightfully so.”
“You just can’t print stuff without a reliable source,” said Fields, who has represented many celebrity clients. “Juries are going to find against you if you do that.”
George Freeman, formerly in-house counsel at the New York Times, said the Rolling Stone and Daily Mail cases were sufficiently different that the settlements do not create a worrisome pattern for the media. “I think the two cases are really sui generis and not really connected,” said Freeman, now executive director of the Media Law Resource Center, a coalition of media defense lawyers.
Harder represented professional wrestler Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) in his successful invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against Gawker for publishing Hogan’s sex tape. Hogan won a $140 million jury verdict against Gawker, resulting in the bankruptcy of Gawker and its founder Nick Denton last year.
Donald Trump campaigned on a promise that he would “open up our libel laws” so he could file more libel lawsuits and “win lots of money,” and made a veiled threat to sue the New York Times while saying “Change libel laws?” in a March tweet.