FAN 125.1 (First Amendment News) 11 First Amendment experts comment on legality of NYT release of Trump’s tax returns

“[A] lawyer for Mr. Trump, Marc E. Kasowitz, emailed a letter to The Times arguing that publication of the records is illegal because Mr. Trump has not authorized the disclosure of any of his tax returns. Mr. Kasowitz threatened ‘prompt initiation of appropriate legal action.’”

“Trump himself tweeted early Sunday: ‘I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them.’ Again, he did not deny or dispute the Times‘ findings.”

The headline in the New York Times read: “Trump Tax Records Obtained by The Times Reveal He Could Have Avoided Paying Taxes for Nearly Two Decades.” Here is how that story began: Donald J. Trump declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns, a tax deduction so substantial it could have allowed him to legally avoid paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years, records obtained by The New York Times show. . . . The documents were the first page of a New York State resident income tax return, the first page of a New Jersey nonresident tax return and the first page of a Connecticut nonresident tax return. . . .”

Here is how The Times says those documents were obtained: “The three documents arrived by mail at The Times with a postmark indicating they had been sent from New York City. The return address claimed the envelope had been sent from Trump Tower.”

Susanne Craig, The Time I Found Donald Trump’s Tax Records in My Mailbox, New York Times, Oct. 2, 2016 (“I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.”)

Trump Reply: According to Eli Stokols writing in Politico: “A statement from Trump’s campaign neither confirmed nor denied that he filed a $916 million loss in his 1995 tax returns, but charged that the documents were ‘illegally obtained’ in what it said was “a further demonstration that the New York Times, like establishment media in general, is an extension of the Clinton Campaign, the Democratic Party and their global special interests.'”

As reported Dylan Stableford in Yahoo: “‘Mr. Trump is a highly skilled businessman who has a fiduciary responsibility to his business, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required,’ the Trump campaign said in a statement. ‘That being said, Mr. Trump has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes, sales and excise taxes, real estate taxes, city taxes, state taxes, employee taxes and federal taxes, along with very substantial charitable contributions.'”

Federal & State Laws

26 U.S. Code § 7213 (a) (1): “It shall be unlawful for any person to whom any return or return information (as defined in section 6103(b)) is disclosed in a manner unauthorized by this title thereafter willfully to print or publish in any manner not provided by law any such return or return information. Any violation of this paragraph shall be a felony punishable by a fine in any amount not exceeding $5,000, or imprisonment of not more than 5 years, or both, together with the costs of prosecution. . . .”

“(3) Other persons. It shall be unlawful for any person to whom any return or return information (as defined in section 6103(b)) is disclosed in a manner unauthorized by this title thereafter willfully to print or publish in any manner not provided by law any such return or return information. Any violation of this paragraph shall be a felony punishable by a fine in any amount not exceeding $5,000, or imprisonment of not more than 5 years, or both, together with the costs of prosecution.”

Marc Kasowitz

Marc Kasowitz

Trump’s Lawyer: According to The Times, Marc Kasowitz, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, has threatened “appropriate legal action.” Here is how Mr. Kasowitz is described on his firm’s biographical page:

  • “Described by CNBC as the ‘toughest lawyer on Wall Street’ and by Bloomberg Financial News as an ‘uberlitigator'”
  • “[He] is widely regarded as one of the preeminent trial lawyers in the country.”
  • “He has been honored as a ‘Litigation Trailblazer’ by the National Law Journal.” 
  • “Opponents cited by The American Lawyer have acknowledged Marc as a ‘powerhouse’ and ‘the toughest of the tough guys,’ and a foreign publication has referred to him as ‘one of the most prominent and feared lawyers in the United States.'”

Related items

10 First Amendment Experts Respond

In light of what was written in the New York Times, I invited several First Amendment experts (practicing lawyers and noted scholars) to respond to the purported threat of litigation. Their comments are set out below. Following this post, I sent an e-mail to Mr. Kasowitz inviting his response.

Floyd Abrams:  The relevant body of First Amendment law that would be applied is not that of prior restraint –the Times has already published so there’s nothing to restrain any more — but cases relating to efforts to punish the publication of truthful information about matters of public interest. Those are cases that have held unconstitutional, on First Amendment grounds, statutes such as the following: barring publication of charges before a judicial panel passing on the alleged  misbehavior of judges; barring publication of the names of juveniles before juvenile courts (I argued those two cases in the Supreme Court); and barring publication of the names of rape victims. None of those cases laid down absolute rules. Neither did the most recent case in this line–the Bartnicki v. Vopper case. Taken together, however, all the cases make it extremely unlikely that the Times could constitutionally be held liable for publishing such a newsworthy story, a month before a presidential election, about a candidate for President.

Robert Corn-RevereThe assertion that the press cannot analyze the tax returns of a presidential candidate without first getting the candidate’s authorization is preposterous. It reveals a depth of ignorance that is unprecedented even in this election cycle. 

Jane BambauerDonald Trump’s arguments are foreclosed by Bartnicki v. Vopper, where the Supreme Court said that the dissemination of information about a matter of public concern could not be penalized even if it was obvious that the information was originally obtained illegally. (Bartnicki involved the broadcast of a private phone conversation that was captured by third party using an illegal wiretap.) For hard cases, reasonable minds may differ about whether speech pertains to matters of public concern (e.g. Hulk Hogan’s sex tape), but the public interest in Trump’s tax records is not a hard case.

This episode also illustrates the tension between free speech and privacy, and shows why courts will tip the scales toward speech even if a generally applicable privacy law has been broken somewhere along the chain. Privacy scholars and advocates have done a very good job showing why privacy is important even if we have nothing to hide. But Donald Trump exposes the costs of privacy: sometimes those who take refuge in claims of privacy do in fact have something to hide. The Bartnicki rule lets us cheat the consequences of our own privacy rules. Privacy law may prohibit certain types of intrusions people’s private affairs, but when the intrusion has happened and produces something valuable, the public will get to reap the benefits of that transgression.

Robert Corn-RevereThe assertion that the press cannot analyze the tax returns of a presidential candidate without first getting the candidate’s authorization is preposterous. It reveals a depth of ignorance that is unprecedented even in this election cycle.

Burt NeuborneThere is no conceivable basis for an action against The New York Times for publishing the income tax returns of a candidate for President. That’s why we have a First Amendment. Trump’s First Amendment privacy interest in whether he pays his taxes went out the window when he decided to run for the office of chief law enforcer. Why should anyone pay taxes if the President refuses to pay his fair share? Trump’s so used to bullying people into silence that he thinks he can do it to The New York Times. Fat chance. Remember the Pentagon Papers. 

Martin RedishIf the Pentagon Papers established anything, it’s that no prior restraint can be imposed on the Times in this situation to prevent them from publishing the tax records. If no criminal action was involved in obtaining the records, it is clear that no subsequent punishment can be imposed, either.

Where there may exist some doctrinal ambiguity (flowing, I believe, from the widespread and misguided assumption that prior restraints are somehow more invidious to First Amendment interests than subsequent punishment) is if the party providing the records to the Times obtained them illegally and subsequent punishment is sought. Purely as a normative matter, I have no doubt that under no circumstances should the act of publication of the records, in and of itself, be punishable. 

However, if The Times was actively involved in a criminal conspiracy to unlawfully acquire the records in the first place, I see no First Amendment bar to criminally punishing them for those acts. The First Amendment does not shield non-communicative criminal acts. For example, one is not constitutionally immune to prosecution for battery, merely because the battery was in an effort to coerce the victim to reveal information that is subsequently punished.

Steven R. Shapiro: The voters can decide what weight to attach to any information contained in Trump’s tax returns – or the returns of any other political candidate – but there can be no serious question about the right of the Times to publish that information. The Supreme Court has clearly and repeatedly held that the First Amendment protects the right of the press to publish information on matters of public concern, and that is true even if the information was unlawfully obtained by someone who then gave it to the press.

Steven Shiffrin: Except in very rare circumstances, newspapers are legally free to publish information provided by confidential sources. A politician may not want his financial records subject to public scrutiny, but he has no power to prevent or punish a newspaper for publishing records he would like to keep from public view. The protection of such a newspaper publication is part of the central meaning and purpose of the First Amendment. The suggestion of Mr. Trump’s counsel that this publication of the New York Times is not protected by the First Amendment is both idle and ignorant.

Geoffrey StoneThis is open-and-shut. As the Supreme Court made clear in the Pentagon Papers decision, the press cannot be held liable for publishing truthful information that is relevant to the public interest in the absence of a clear and present danger of grave harm. There is the question of invasion of privacy, but that tort applies only to information that is not “newsworthy.” That is hardly the case here. The First Amendment unquestionably protects the publication of Trump’s tax returns.

Nadine Strossen: The New York Times clearly has the right to publish Trump’s tax returns, and its readers have the right to read those returns, even absent Trump’s authorization.  The only authorization that is required is provided by the First Amendment, as well as multiple Supreme Court precedents.  The Court has consistently held that the First Amendment shields the publication of true information of public concern, including information that could be considered private, so long as the publisher did not act unlawfully in obtaining the information. The Court has upheld this right even when the parties who obtained the information and provided it to the publisher did act unlawfully. For example, the Court upheld the Times’ right to publish the Pentagon Papers regardless of whether Daniel Ellsberg acted unlawfully by providing these classified documents to the Times.  The Court also has upheld this principle when the information was illegally obtained from a private, non-governmental source.  As the Court explained: “[P]rivacy concerns give way when balanced against the interest in publishing matters of public importance….One of the costs associated with participation in public affairs is an attendant loss of privacy. . . . [A] stranger’s illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern.” 

The Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment trumps various state and federal laws that impose criminal or civil liability for publishing truthful information about matters of public concern.  Although the Court has declined to rule categorically that the First Amendment defense will always prevail, it has stressed that “where a newspaper publishes truthful information which it has lawfully obtained, punishment may lawfully be imposed, if at all, only when narrowly tailored to a state interest of the highest order.”  (emphasis supplied) This is a very demanding standard, which the Court has never found to be satisfied, even in factual situations involving more pressing privacy concerns, and less compelling public information concerns, than those involved in the current situation.

Laurence Tribe: The idea of suing The New York Times to prevent or penalize publishing Mr. Trump’s tax returns is ludicrous. Regardless of who leaked that information to The Times, the First Amendment flatly forecloses any such use of judicial power to deprive the public of truthful information, especially given its relevance to a national election. [Twitter handle: @tribelaw]

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The authors of the New York Times story were:

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4 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    I agree the Times is off the hook, although they may have to cooperate in the investigation into who did it. (Fingerprints on the paper, maybe.)

    To my mind, the interesting thing is that this return dates back to when Bill was President. I wonder who would have access to returns from that era, but not later? Filegate immediately leapt to mind. Perhaps they didn’t stop with just FBI files?

  2. Robert says:

    Too many First Amendment “scholars” letting their anti-Trump bias cloud their judgment. So, I assume all ten agree that Obama was wrong to go after reporter Rosen? And all agree both he and Hillary wrong to go after Assange? Rosen and Assange did less than the NYT did here, which admitted Woodward’s own lawyers at the Washington Post said this would be criminal. Not all First Amendment attorneys agree with your analysis. http://lawnewz.com/uncategorized/the-new-york-times-likely-broke-law-by-publishing-trumps-taxes-free-speech-is-no-excuse/

  3. Joe says:

    Many 1A lawyers criticized the Obama Administration for its actions against certain members of the press so don’t think there was a special pleading going on there, putting aside specific details being different in certain cases. There is of course disagreement among 1A experts on most issues. OTOH, Wikileaks is quite open-ended as compared to the narrow tax information provided here.

  4. Douglas Levene says:

    I can accept that the First Amendment protects the right of the NYT to publish tax information about a presidential candidate disclosed by some third party in violation of federal law. How about the following: It appears that the FBI required the agents working on the “investigation” of Hillary Clinton to sign non-disclosure agreements. If one of those agents breaches the NDA and tells all to the press, can the press publish? I would think so. Can the FBI still enforce the NDA against the agent, e.g., by seeking damages? That’s a closer question. Why should courts enforce contract provisions that are against the public interest?