Sarah Palin’s defamation suit against the New York Times can move forward, a federal judge said on Friday.
US District Court Judge Jed Rakoff rejected the Times bid to dismiss the suit, which arose over a 2017 editorial Palin claims wrongly linked her to the 2011 mass shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Palin was a 2008 Vice Presidential candidate and is a former Governor of Alaska.
Rakoff today said there was “sufficient evidence to allow a rational finder of fact to find actual malice by clear and convincing evidence.” While Rakoff allowed that much of Palin’s case was circumstantial, it was strong enough that a jury might find the Times and its former editorial page editor James Bennet acted with “actual malice by clear and convincing evidence.”
Rakoff scheduled a Feb. 1, 2021 trial. Read the court documents here.
“We’re disappointed in the ruling but are confident we will prevail at trial when a jury hears the facts,” Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades-Ha said.
The 2017 editorial came after an Alexandria, Virginia mass shooting that wounded four people, including then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. The editorial said that the 2011 Giffords shooting came after Palin’s political action committee had circulated a map that put 20 Democrats, including Giffords, under “stylized cross hairs.”
The Times later issued a correction, saying there was no link between “political rhetoric” and the Giffords shooting. Bennet said he had not intended to blame Palin.
Rakoff disagreed. He said Bennet’s substantial rewrite of an earlier draft, and admission he was aware “incitement” could mean a call to violence, could suggest actual malice. Rakoff also noted that Bennet may have ignored materials that were not in step with his “angle” on the editorial, something that could be construed as a reckless disregard for the truth. .
In its ruling (read it here), the three-judge US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated and remanded Rakoff’s original ruling, reached after hearing from testimony from Bennet, on procedural grounds. Therefore it did not offer an opinion on the merits of Palin’s case.
“The district court (Rakoff, J.), uncertain as to whether Palin’s complaint plausibly alleged all of the required elements of her defamation claim, held an evidentiary hearing to test the sufficiency of Palin’s pleadings. Following the hearing, and without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment, the district court relied on evidence adduced at that hearing to dismiss Palin’s complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). We find that the district court erred in relying on facts outside the pleadings to dismiss the complaint. We further conclude that Palin’s Proposed Amended Complaint plausibly states a claim for defamation and may proceed to full discovery.”
Bennet testified in the unusual hearing that he did not intend to draw a “causal link” between the 2011 shooting that left Giffords severely wounded and a notorious “crosshairs” map distributed at the time by a Sarah Palin PAC.
Listening to Bennet’s testimony and considering the circumstances of law and otherwise, Rakoff made the call that Palin’s case could not effectively demonstrate actual malice, as would be required to move the matter forward.
Writing the Second Circuit’s ruling, Judge John M. Walker noted that it was clear Rakoff “viewed the hearing as a way to more expeditiously decide whether Palin had a viable way to establish actual malice. But, despite the flexibility that is accorded district courts to streamline proceedings and manage their calendars, district courts are not free to bypass rules of procedure that are carefully calibrated to ensure fair process to both sides.”