President Donald Trump has taken issue with Saturday Night Live, and he wants to settle it in court.
Trump aired his latest grievances after this weekend’s episode, where he once again blasted SNL for a sketch taking aim at his tenure in the White House. For the show’s final episode of the year, the cast spoofed the classic Christmas film It’s A Wonderful Life as It’s A Wonderful Trump, following Alec Baldwin’s Trump after his character wished that he had never become president.
The real president was not amused.
“A REAL scandal is the one sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live. It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials,” he wrote on Twitter. “Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal? Only defame & belittle! Collusion?”
A REAL scandal is the one sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live. It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal? Only defame & belittle! Collusion?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 16, 2018
This is not Trump’s first criticism of SNL — he has tweeted critiques of the show (and Baldwin’s impression) since 2016. This is also not Trump’s first legal threat towards SNL or its parent network, NBC, Variety reports. He has twice suggested the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) scrutinize NBC’s broadcast license, although the agency does not have the power to revoke a license based on “the content to a particular newscast,” according to FCC chairman Ajit Pai.
But even floating the notion of a legal case against SNL for defamation brings up a few points. Firstly, SNL has a noted history of political satire, and U.S. presidents have been at the center of its topical comedy since the show first aired in the '70s. Baldwin’s Trump has been preceded by similarly iconic spoofs including Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush, Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton, and Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush, not to mention Chevy Chase’s constantly tripping Gerald Ford.
Furthermore, this case has been decided already in the courts. Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that satire is protected under the First Amendment. In Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, Fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell sued Hustler Magazine for “emotional distress” after the publication ran a parody ad on its cover joking that Falwell had an incestuous encounter with his mother in an outhouse.
But the Supreme Court determined that public figures cannot present a legal challenge against comedy or parody based off of “emotional distress.” Compared to libel or slander, the key difference here is that parody is not presented as a fact, and your typical audience knows it’s not true. People laugh at Baldwin’s petulant Trump, or Melissa McCarthy’s manic Sean Spicer, or Matt Damon’s blustering Brett Kavanaugh, but SNL doesn’t attempt to present it as reality — just a warped, hyperbolic mirror image of it, as all parody is. Due to Hustler v. Falwell, satire, including critical or even hurtful satire, has remained protected under constitutional law as a valid and necessary form of free speech.