Judge throws out Palin defamation suit against New York Times

by mcardinal

Chris Lieberman, FISM News


With the jury still deliberating, a federal judge announced on Monday that he would dismiss former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the New York Times.

In the suit, Palin claimed that Times and editorial page editor James Bennet wrongly accused her of inciting murder in a 2017 editorial that linked an ad from her political action committee to the 2011 mass shooting in Arizona that killed six and wounded then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. 

Bennet’s editorial, entitled “America’s Lethal Politics,” was written the day that a gunman opened fire on Republican congressmen at a baseball practice in Washington D.C. in 2017, injuring Congressman Steve Scalise. The article was meant to address the heated political rhetoric in the country at the time. However, in the article Bennet claimed that there was a “clear” link between Palin’s ad containing a map with crosshairs over several Democratic congressional districts, including Giffords’, and the shooting that took place a year later. There is no evidence that the shooter had seen the ad in question.

After a week-long trial, the jury began deliberating on Friday, and on Monday they had still not reached a verdict. However, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff ruled on Monday that Palin’s legal team had failed to reach the standard of “actual malice” necessary to convict the Times of libel as established by the 1964 Supreme Court ruling New York Times v. Sullivan.

“The Supreme Court made that balance and set a very high standard, and I don’t think that standard has been realized by plaintiff with respect to at least one aspect of the actual malice requirement,” Rakoff said. “I don’t think a reasonable juror could conclude that Mr. Bennet either knew the statements were false or that he thought the statements were false and he recklessly disregarded that high probability.”

While ultimately ruling in their favor, Rakoff did chide the Times for their error, saying, “I think this is an example of very unfortunate editorializing on the part of the Times but, having said that, that’s not the issue before this court.”

Although he has already announced his verdict, Rakoff also said that he would allow the jury to continue to deliberate, as he believes their decision will be useful during what seems to be an inevitable appeals process. The judge also told jurors, “If you see anything in the media about this case, just turn away.”

The Sullivan ruling states that if a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit holds or is running for public office, they must prove that the defendant not only published something that was factually inaccurate, but that they did so with “actual malice,” meaning that they knew that the statement was false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. The decision was meant to prevent public officials from using their office to punish or intimidate the media for honest mistakes.

In recent years, Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have suggested revisiting the Sullivan decision. Should Palin’s case reach the Supreme Court, the justices may have an opportunity to do just that.