When Bernie Sanders calls Trump ‘a racist,’ is it defamatory speech?

When someone calls another person a “racist,” as Sen. Bernie Sanders did of President Donald Trump on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is it considered defamatory speech?

Speaking at an event in South Carolina on Jan. 21, Sanders labeled the president of the United States “a racist,” but didn’t offer evidence of the claim.

“I must tell you it gives me no pleasure to tell you that we now have a President of the United States who is a racist. We have a president intentionally, purposefully trying to divide us up by the color of our skin, by our gender, by the country we came from, by our religion,” Sanders said.

U.S. Senate

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders: “We now have a President of the United States who is a racist.”

Following the remark, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel came to the president’s defense in a tweet.

“Absolutely disgusting and wrong. [Trump] has brought African American and Hispanic unemployment to record lows, passed historic criminal justice reform. Even worse that Bernie is using MLK Day to make an incendiary comment like that,” McDaniel wrote.

Hurling “racist” accusations across the political aisle has been a staple of some politicians during election cycles going back to 1968. But do such insults pose any legal risk to the person committing the slur?

Last August, when “CNN Tonight” news host Don Lemon said President Trump “traffics in racism,” he appeared to receive no consequence for making the claim.

Nevertheless, calling someone “racist” without cause is highly damaging to the person accused and has become a powerful political tool of the left in the United States.

RELATED: Are you a racist? Is Vermont racist? 10 Vermonters address claims of racism in the Green Mountain State

Are smears legally actionable?

According to current legal opinion, calling someone a “racist” may be moot as far as defamation and slander claims are concerned. Defamatory statements are defined by legal sources as any communication which harms an individual’s reputation so much that it negatively impacts the person’s respect or confidence on the job or in the community.

Aaron Minc, principal of Minc Defamation Law LLC, in Orange Village, Ohio, told True North that Trump wouldn’t have much luck going after Sanders on legal grounds.

“Unfortunately, there really isn’t much or any of a case here for defamation — certainly not in the context of politicians calling each other names,” Minc said of the Sanders comment.

“Statements by public officials are pretty well protected, so not likely a defamation case here. There’s little a president can do,” he said.

Minc noted that defamation laws vary from state to state, and the person who is smeared must prove that a statement was defamatory in order to make a claim.

Clay Calvert, a mass communication professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, has written that only factual assertions are grounds for libel and defamation suits.

“The bottom line is that what is defamatory will vary from time to time and place to place,” Calvert wrote in a 2014 HuffPost commentary. “Proving whether or not one actually is a homophobe [for example] will be extremely difficult. … Mere name-calling generally does not make for successful libel suits. And to the extent that people loosely bandy about the word homophobe, much like they often do ‘racist,’ some courts may simply find it to be an expression of opinion unless there are factual instances of discrimination to back it up.”

Calvert cites the 2013 Forte vs. Jones federal court ruling in which the judge declared “the allegation that a person is a ‘racist’ … is not actionable because the term ‘racist’ has no factually verifiable meaning.”

In other countries, however, false accusations of racism may carry more weight, at least compared to the United States.

Attorney Ivan Israelstam, of Labour Law Management Consulting, a legal firm located in Randburg, South Africa, reports that accusations of racism, especially in the workplace, in the are taken seriously in the former apartheid nation. False accusations of racism are taken just as seriously, too.

“Employees must avoid making false accusations of racism as this could put them on hot water,” according to Israelstam. “In the case of SACWU and another vs NCP Chlorchem (Pty) Ltd (2007, 7 BLLR 663) the employee was attending a meeting when he unjustifiably accused a colleague of racism and threatened to call for his dismissal. The employee was then dismissed for having made a false allegation of racism. He then referred a dispute of unfair dismissal to the bargaining council where the arbitrator upheld the fairness of the dismissal. The employee then took the matter to the (South African) Labour Court where it was decided that: Falsely accusing a person of racism threatens racial harmony at the workplace, it is racially offensive, abusive and insulting, and such accusations therefore deserve strong discipline.”

TNR reached out to Daniel McLean, spokesperson for Bernie Sanders, to comment on the Vermont senator’s slur against the president. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at lvinvt@gmx.com.

Image courtesy of U.S. Senate

20 thoughts on “When Bernie Sanders calls Trump ‘a racist,’ is it defamatory speech?

    • Petemo, I tried to find it, Leahy was such a nerd in those days I doubt he was ever
      invited to participate……but one can only hope !!

      Also, it was mostly a UVM thing back then, he was at St Micheal’s

      Socialist Sanders, he was at Goddard smoking Pot…… cool man !!

  1. Who cares what this loser says? Which is why he’s accusing the Prez of what the Dems actually are: institutionalizing patronizing institution-mongers helping keep minorities in an artificially whiny state that makes many successful minorities in this country either cringe when they hear this shyte- or HATE. So this first generation Polish-Jewish-hypenated -American is using Lenin’s tactics. Big surprise. I just hope he gets the nomination for Prez in his party, thus so all of us can witness a defeat that will make the McCarthy-Nixon slaughter in ’68 look like a Dem victory by comparison. Gene in ’68 was a mere joke: “Bern” in ’20 will be an hysterical corker.

  2. When the debate is lost, slander is the last tool of the loser. Bernie is a loser, except that he is a genius in convincing fools to vote for him.

  3. The comment says more about the commentator than it does about Trump.

    Sad part is Vermont helped grow this kind of politician and the speech. This is the state and the country we will get if we don’t come together in Love, Joy and Peace. If we stay with the fruits of division, envy, power, we’re going to get more of the same.

    What has Bernie done to bring people together….outside of the free fantasy he cons people with?

  4. Such name calling gets him invited to make speeches in faraway places, flying there on CO2 spewing private planes, just like Al Gore and the Clintons.
    About $100 thousand to $200 thousand per speech plus private plane and other expenses is the going price.
    He never had a pot to p… in, but all of a sudden he and his foundation have become worth over $10 million

    He makes faces, swings his arms, feigns a stupid grin, or scowls when attacking.
    He acts like a spoiled child.

    • This comment sounds like someone acting like a spoiled child. Isn’t the U.S. all about pulling yourself up and making money. Can only shake my head.

      • You may not like it, but what he posted is either true or not. Reminds me of the old saying “Nothing makes a fool angrier than telling him the truth.”

      • mj,

        AOC and Bernie want to tax the rich 70%, but HIS assets and income go to his tax-free foundation, just as with the Clintons, Bob Dole, Al Gore, etc.

        Tax the rich, but not foundations.

        Bernie is a hypocrite about CO2.

        He should be donating his speech money to charity.

  5. burnee is a leftocrat and communist so he’s twice the lier of your run of the mill demonrat.
    If anyone is pigeon holing peeps and pitting class aginst class it’s the leftard faction which has been their policy for decades..
    . The talking point of the leftards is Pres. Trump called all mexican ILLEGAL gimmigrunts
    murders and rapist when in actuality he said murders and rapist were AMONG the ILLEGAL gimmigrunts.
    I think burnee is getting worried since he’s now being out commied by a much younger crowd and burnee will be pushed to the side as he’s now a old fossil of commie failure..
    He’ll just have to suffer in his 3 houses and millions of ill gotten gain..

      • In response to your post, I present you with another of your posts:

        “This comment sounds like someone acting like a spoiled child.”

        Kettle, meet pot.

      • “can’t make an intelligent argument they resort to name-calling”

        I agree, Burned out sandernesta hasn’t had an intelligent argument since he left the park bench in Burlington for the Mayors office. 4.5 mill salary later what’s he done for VT???
        Talk about your bad investment….

  6. The Progressives have worn out the word “racist.” Like most of the current pejorative expletives, it’s become meaningless – except to the democrats in whom it triggers reactive aggression. Taking a lesson from the Harry Potter films, as soon as Bernie starts to aggravate you, mentally dress him in a complete head-to-toe clown costume. With him, that’s especially easy to do.

  7. Typical ” Socialist Sanders”, spewing rhetoric with no evidence to back it up, as this has been
    his forte his entire useless career in politics…….what a buffoon !!.

    But you have to understand the ” Bern ” may be a little testy, as there is a new bunch of young
    socialist taking over the DemocRATic party, so they’re getting all the attention.

    Don’t worry ” Bernie”, their rhetoric is more moronic than your usual BS agenda.

  8. Why doesn’t our big mouthed Communist Senator tell us just what President Trump has aid or done that qualifies for the title ‘racist’. Sanders just wants to keep the mess stirred up by Obama and now, what Sanders feeds into. Divide, Sanders? It is YOU who divides. Thanks heavens your chances of becoming President are NIL!

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