Once again, President Trump is engaged in what the military would call "high tempo combat operations" with the media.
Today's targets are MSNBC's Morning Joe and CNN, or what Trump calls the "fake news network".
But it's just a side show. After all, what Trump really wants is to be able to change the law to crack down on the media. Trump pledged as much, stating, "I'm going to open up our libel laws, so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money."
On March 30, Trump tweeted "The failing New York Times has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change libel laws?"
In April, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus clarified that changes to libel law "is something that is being looked at."
And this week, the pro-libel law camp got another boost when Sarah Palin announced libel action against the New York Times.
Of course, Trump's ability to change the law is limited. Even if Congress backed him (which it likely wouldn't), the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and of the press. That won't change absent a Constitutional amendment.
Nevertheless, it's worth considering the moral implications of what more aggressive libel laws mean. Because in practice, those laws offer the exact opposite to the supposed moral balancing that Trump, Palin, and co. would have us believe. They cause deep societal harm. To see how, we need only look at western Europe.
Europe proves that the first casualty of plaintiff-friendly libel laws is civil society. Facing the ever dangling dagger of major monetary damages, European individuals and organizations are hesitant to express thoughts freely. And it's not just that prospective libel damages are big, it's the fact that proving libel is easy in Europe.
English courts, for example, do not require a claimant to prove that the accused entertained serious doubts about the veracity of an assertion before making it. Claimants need only show a public allegation caused harm to their reputation. In response, defendants must prove that their assertion was objectively true, or justified by extenuating public interest (as assessed by the totality of evidence).
These requirements, far more lenient than those prevalent in our courts, are ingredients in the chilling of British speech. As I've explained, this chilling has prevented reporting on the corruption surrounding Qatar's successful 2022 World Cup soccer bid, and other sustained criminal conduct. These failures matter to society.
In Britain, the pursuit of truth is shadowed by the specter of authoritarianism. On controversial matters, the answer whether "to speak or not to speak?" too often falls on the latter, for fear of well-funded libel claims. That risk is also represented by the many English libel suits that are settled out of court. Paying off a claimant is often better than waging a lopsided battle to defend an honestly held belief.
Sadly, this legal trend reverberates across other major European borders.
In France, politicians regularly use the threat – and action - of libel suits to deter journalists and political opponents from illuminating their malfeasant conduct.
In Germany, until recently, actors and producers on a SNL-style show would have been criminally liable for their more fruitful sketches. Don't believe me? Just Google "Jan Boehmermann". Germans also face legal sanction when they insult each other. As I noted recently, the German authorities are targeting controversial opinions posted on social media.
In Italy, the mafia and powerful state institutions have long relied on libel laws to shield themselves from attention.
Moreover, regardless of particular locale, European libel laws foster a degraded sense of individual accountability. Whether it's a big business, a politician, or a celebrity, the laws allow the powerful to practice influence absent reciprocal public scrutiny.
I speak personally here. I'm an American who grew up in London, but I have written articles in Washington – such as this one - that I could not have penned in London. Assessed objectively, the risks to my limited wallet would simply be too great.
Yet this libel dystopia is exactly what Trump wishes for America.
For the rest of us, however, Europe's example is a warning.
When it comes to the intersection of individual freedom and accountable power, America stands the more righteous. And we must never take our freedom of speech for granted.