New York Times Beats Sarah Palin Defamation Lawsuit

Sarah Palin with inset James Bennet -Getty-H2017
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images; J. Countess/Getty Images

The New York Times has prevailed in defense of a defamation lawsuit brought by Sarah Palin over an editorial that mistakenly linked one of her political action committee ads to a 2011 mass shooting that severely wounded then-Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff dismissed the complaint on Tuesday.

"Nowhere is political journalism so free, so robust, or perhaps so rowdy as in the United States," writes the judge in an opinion. "In the exercise of that freedom, mistakes will be made, some of which will be hurtful to others. Responsible journals will promptly correct their errors; others will not. But if political journalism is to achieve its constitutionally endorsed role of challenging the powerful, legal redress by a public figure must be limited to those cases where the public figure has a plausible factual basis for complaining that the mistake was made maliciously, that is, with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard of its falsity."

Rakoff says Palin has not reached the standard of demonstrating actual malice. The opinion comes after the judge rather unusually called upon the paper's editorial writer to testify. At the hearing, James Bennet said under oath that he didn't mean to link Palin to the shooting and was more concerned with the overall climate of political incitement in the wake of a June 14 shooting at a park where members of Congress were practicing for a charity baseball game. Palin's attorneys argued this wasn't enough — nor was the correction that the paper appended to its editorial — but Rakoff is dispensing with the suit.

"Here, plaintiff's complaint, even when supplemented by facts developed at an evidentiary hearing convened by the Court, fails to make that showing," states the opinion (read in full here). "Accordingly, the complaint must be dismissed."

In coming to the conclusion, Rakoff accepts that Palin has shown that statements were "of and concerning" her and that reasonable readers could infer provably false statements how SarahPAC was linked to the Giffords shooting from the circulation of a map with electoral districts under stylized crosshairs.

"That the offending statements appeared in an editorial, which by its nature presents an overall opinion or opinions, is relevant, but hardly dispositive," writes the judge. "Unlike statements in cases relied upon by the Times that voiced editorial opinions about connections that 'appeared to be' or 'could well happen,' the statements here complained of stated unequivocally that there was a 'direct' and 'clear' link between the SarahPAC Map and the Loughner shooting, albeit a link created by intermediating 'political incitement.'"

Nevertheless, it's on that actual malice standard — one that The New York Times itself helped bring about in the landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan — where the newspaper is saved.

Palin argued that the defendant had a motive to defame her.

"As to the alleged 'hostility,' it goes without saying that the Times editorial board is not a fan of Mrs. Palin. But neither the fact of that opposition, nor the supposition that a sharp attack on a disfavored political figure will increase a publication's readership, has ever been enough to prove actual malice."

Rakoff focuses on Bennet's mindset and says that the best Palin can muster is his association with liberal publications and the fact that his brother is the Democratic senator from Colorado, whose opponent was endorsed by Palin. The judge says there's not a shred of support that Bennet had economic motive to defame Palin and that there was at least some research before the publishing of the article.

That there may have been research failures "do not constitute clear and convincing evidence of actual malice, even of the 'reckless' kind," writes the judge, adding that "failure to comply with journalistic policies — which the complaint here also alleges, although in wholly conclusory fashion — cannot establish actual malice absent allegations supporting an inference of reckless disregard."

Ultimately, Rakoff signs off his opinion with a message.

"We come back to the basics," he writes. "What we have here is an editorial, written and rewritten rapidly in order to voice an opinion on an immediate event of importance, in which are included a few factual inaccuracies somewhat pertaining to Mrs. Palin that are very rapidly corrected. Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not."