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Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin lost her libel lawsuit against The New York Times on Tuesday when a jury rejected her claim that the newspaper maliciously damaged her reputation by erroneously linking her campaign rhetoric to a mass shooting.
A judge had already declared that if the jury sided with Palin, he would set aside its verdict on the grounds that she hadn’t proved the paper acted maliciously, something required in libel suits involving public figures.
Asked about the verdict as she left the Manhattan courthouse, Palin said, “Of course we’re disappointed,” adding she hoped there would be an appeal. She also praised her two lawyers.
“There were three of us versus the monstrous team of The New York Times, and we did well,” she said. “Doing all they can to make sure the little guy has a voice, the underdog can have their say.”
In a statement, the Times called the verdict a “reaffirmation of a fundamental tenet of American law: public figures should not be permitted to use libel suits to punish or intimidate news organizations that make, acknowledge and swiftly correct unintentional errors.”
Palin, a onetime Republican vice presidential nominee, sued the newspaper in 2017, claiming it had damaged her career as a political commentator and consultant with an editorial about gun control published after a man opened fire on a congressional baseball team practice in Washington.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, was wounded in the shooting, committed by a man with a history of anti-GOP activity.
In the editorial, the Times blamed overheated political rhetoric. It likened the shooting to a 2011 massacre in Arizona that left six dead and former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords severely wounded, and said Palin’s political action committee had contributed to an atmosphere of violence at the time by circulating a map of electoral districts that put Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized crosshairs.
In a correction shortly after the editorial was published, The Times said that it had “incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting” and that it had “incorrectly described” the map; a tweet read, “We got an important fact wrong.”
At the trial, Palin cast herself as a victim of biased journalism by a left-leaning, elitist media institution eager to embarrass a pro-gun-rights politician.
“It was devastating to read a false accusation that I had anything to do with murder,” Palin said. “I felt powerless — that I was up against Goliath. … I was David.”
In closing arguments, Palin lawyer Kenneth Turkel called the editorial an example of how the Times “treated people on the right they don’t agree with. … They don’t care. She’s just one of ‘them.'”
In his closing, Times attorney David Axelrod called the case “incredibly important because it’s about freedom of the press.”
The First Amendment protects journalists “who make an honest mistake when they write about a person like Sarah Palin. … That’s all this was about — an honest mistake,” Axelrod said.
It was an uphill battle for Palin. The jury had to decide whether former Times editorial page editor James Bennet acted with “actual malice” against a public figure or with “reckless disregard” for the truth when he inserted the disputed wording into the piece.
With the jury still deliberating, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff had informed lawyers on Monday that he would be ruling that Palin had failed to show that the Times had acted out of malice, a finding he predicted was certain to be challenged on appeal. He shared that news with jurors Tuesday after their verdict was read, saying he would now enter a written judgment.
“We’ve reached the same bottom line,” Rakoff said. “But it’s on different grounds — you decided the facts, I decided the law.”
One of Palin’s lawyers, Turkel, questioned Tuesday why the judge chose to announce his finding before the end of the trial, calling it “premature.” He also said an appeal was likely, “but we’ll have more on that down the road.”
At trial, Bennet testified that he had botched the edit but meant no harm.
“I’ve regretted it pretty much every day since,” he said.
He and other Times staffers testified about the great lengths taken to correct the error the morning after the piece was published. He also said he wanted to apologize to Palin but was prohibited by a Times policy against making personal apologies.
The defense also has asserted the editorial was predominantly about inflammatory political rhetoric and made only a passing reference to Palin’s political committee, which by law is an entity separate from her.
Palin pushed back, saying the PAC “is me.”
“My name, my voice, my face,” she said.
A judge had to put off the trial for a week after Palin tested positive for COVID-19. Away from court, she caused a stir by being sighted dining out at an upscale restaurant in Manhattan after testing positive.
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