A federal judge on Monday said he will dismiss Sarah Palin’s libel case against the New York Times, concluding that Palin’s lawyers had failed to produce sufficient evidence to show the publication acted with actual malice.
“I think this is an example of very unfortunate editorializing on the part of the Times,” said U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff. “Having said that, that is not the issue before the court. The law sets a very high standard for actual malice.”
A jury started deliberating Friday, but Rakoff was acting on a rule that allows him to dismiss a case if he believes that the plaintiff had failed to reach a basic evidentiary threshold. Rakoff said that he would not file his ruling until after the jury reaches its verdict. He said that given the likelihood of an appeal, those judges will “greatly benefit” from knowing how the jury decided.
The case centered on a June 14, 2017 Times editorial, written hours after a shooter opened fire on a congressional softball game, that delved into harsh political rhetoric and its links to violence. James Bennet, then the Times Opinion Editor and a defendant in the case, said he was responsible for inserting an edit into the story that linked Palin’s political action committee to a 2011 mass shooting, in which six people were killed and Rep. Gabby Giffords was severely wounded.
The original Times editorial, headlined “America’s Lethal Politics,” read, “Was this attack evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized crosshairs.”
In fact, no link was ever established, and the Times issued corrections. But Palin still sued.
In his ruling, Rakoff said that the Supreme Court’s precedent, set in New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, requires public figures suing for libel to show that the Times and Bennet knew what they were publishing was false, and published it anyway, or that they showed “reckless disregard” for the high probability that the statements were untrue.
The judge noted that Palin’s team presented no emails that suggested Bennet knew that the linkage was false. In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 shooting, a number of commentators pointed to a 2010 map published by Palin’s PAC that showed stylized crosshairs over Democrats’ congressional districts, including that of Giffords. But Loughner had focused on Giffords well before then.
In explaining his ruling, Rakoff noted evidence showing that Bennet thought what he was writing was true. The judge noted that Palin’s attorneys did not challenge Bennet’s contention that he never read an ABC News article, hyperlinked in the editorial, that would have informed him that the link between Palin’s PAC and the 2011 mass shooting was never established.
The judge also noted that shortly after the editorial was published online, Bennet got an email from Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist, who “questioned whether the information was all correct.” Bennett, Rakoff said, “responded by immediately saying this was his understanding and he would pursue it further, and he pursued it to the corrections that were issued.”
Still, Rakoff was critical of the Times. He said that he was “not altogether happy with having to make this decision on behalf of” the Times, saying that he was “troubled” by Bennet’s erroneous edits.
“I am hardly surprised that Palin brought this lawsuit,” he said. Even though the Times issued a correction, what it meant is that “Ms. Palin was subjected to an ultimately unsupported and very serious allegation that Mr. Bennet chose to revive seven years after the underlying events.”
Rakoff’s decision was unusual in that it was issued while the jury was still deliberating. He said that it would have been “unfair to both sides” not to let them know of his decision.
A spokeswoman said the Times “welcomes today’s decision. It is 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’s attorney did not immediately return a request for comment.
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