President Donald Trump squawked (tweeted loudly, i.e. in all caps) against the media on Sunday as “THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” Trump’s angry online rant appeared after “Saturday Night Live (SNL)” mocked his announcement declaring a national emergency. However, the thin-skinned Trump is about Alec Baldwin’s impersonation and other humorous jibe, he is out of line. The right to parody presidents, including Trump, is defended by the constitution.
Accusing TV networks of teaming up against his administration, Trump questioned why shows like “SNL” can satire him without “retribution.” The answer is the first amendment. A unanimous Supreme Court 1988 decision defended the constitutional right to parody. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a conservative appointee of President Richard Nixon, wrote the opinion.
Parody Precedents of Presidents
Considering the fact that he has appeared on the show twice himself, one would think he know the format and genre. Since its inception in 1975, Saturday Night Live has parodied every president and major candidates, regardless of party. Some politicians have viewed “Saturday Night Live” parody treatment with good-natured humor. President Gerald R. Ford embraced Chevy Chase’s portrayal of him, inviting Chase to the White House and making a cameo appearance on “SNL.” President George H.W. Bush also invited his impersonator, Dana Carvey, to the White House. Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin appeared in a show alongside Tina Fey impersonating her. The nominee, John McCain, also appeared on the show with Fey as his running mate. Hillary Clinton appeared with Amy Poehler in 2008 and Kate McKinnon in 2016 imitating her.
Trump’s tweets on February 17 were not the first time he suggested “SNL” should pay for their scathing satires of him. Two month’s ago, Trump angrily questioned whether that week’s parody skit was legal, alleging that it should be “tested in court,” clearly unaware that it has been. Since “SNL” has a long history of political satire, Trump is likely to face a losing battle if he actually tried to bring them to court.
The First Amendment grants individuals freedom of speech. While Trump’s ego is not protected, satire and political commentary are. Trump has suggested that “SNL” defamed him, but there is no evidence that the show hurt his reputation. To sue for defamation, a plaintiff must prove that a false statement communicated as fact damaged the person’s reputation.
The Supreme Court ruled on the legality of parody vs. defamation more than 30 years ago in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. For years, fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell exercised significant political might. He advocated for conservative causes and criticized the porn industry, such as publications like Hustler, as negative influences. Hustler ran a parody ad depicting Falwell as a debauched drunk who, fueled by Campari, had an incestuous liaison with his mother. Falwell sued.
The court decided that a public figure like Falwell must prove malice to collect damages. Libel implies the ad was presented as truth. Rehnquist wrote that “the Hustler ad parody could not ‘reasonably be understood as describing actual facts about [Falwell] or actual events in which [he] participated.” He added that even if society finds the speech offensive, that “is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection.”
The president took an oath that he “will to the best of his ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That includes protecting the First Amendment. So, whether he likes it or not, the right to parody includes presidents, which means Trump too.
By Dyanne Weiss
New York Post: Trump rages against ‘SNL’ after latest Alec Baldwin skit
Forbes: Trump Says ‘Saturday Night’ Should Be ‘Tested In Court’ Over ‘Wonderful Life’ Parody
Rolling Stone: Flashback: Hustler Magazine Scores First Amendment Victory Against Jerry Falwell
The Heritage Guide to the Constitution
Communications Law classes in college
Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian, public domain