MANHATTAN (CN) — Denying any malice toward Sarah Palin, an attorney for The New York Times told a federal judge on Friday that the paper promptly corrected its implication that the former Alaskan governor incited the 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
The Times published the article in question on June 14, 2017, hours after congressional Republicans were targeted in a sniper-style attack while practicing in Virginia for an annual charity baseball game.
For the Times editorial board, the attack recalled the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting carried out in Arizona by Jared Loughner, which killed six and left Rep. Giffords gravely wounded.
Finding a “sickeningly familiar pattern” between the events, the editorial “America’s Lethal Politics” called Palin’s incitement of the 2011 shooting “clear” and “direct.”
Palin’s political action committee had published a map before the shooting with crosshairs over Giffords’ congressional district and those of 19 other Democrats.
Claiming that the article defamed her, the former governor brought a federal complaint last week against the Times. Denying responsibility for the 2011 shooting, Palin quoted a Washington Post article that says Loughner had been a “troubled man” with “no clear political views,” whose schizophrenia diagnosis featured prominently at his trial, helping him avoid a death sentence in favor of life in prison without parole.
Answering Palin’s complaint in court Friday, Times attorney David Schulz noted that the original version of the editorial barely remained on the website for half a day.
“The complaint makes very clear that a mistake was made, but The Times have admitted a mistake was made,” said Schulz, a partner with Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schulz. “There was an honest mistake in posting the editorial. It was corrected within 12 or 13 hours. That's all the facts, and it's laid out in the complaint.”
The editorial board later added that “no connection to the crime was established” between the shooting and the PAC’s crosshairs graphic.
Palin meanwhile wrote in her complaint that the paper’s two online corrections and apology to its readers were “woefully insufficient.”
At Friday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff pressed Palin’s attorney about their plans to show actual malice, a high bar protecting press freedom by preventing legal liability for simple errors.
Kenneth Turkel, from the Tampa-based firm Bajo Cuva Cohen Turkel, said that Palin alleges the editorial board showed “reckless disregard” for the truth.
“It was well-established beforehand, and it was published — the falsity of it was literally acknowledged the same day in another story in their paper,” he said. “If they didn't know, they certainly should have known.”
Despite conventional firewall between editorial and reporting, Turkel found it implausible that the editorial board was unaware of what the news team had printed.
“It’s somewhat hard to believe that the same day they published a story, literally acknowledging there was no link between the alleged — between the map and the crime, specifically in the Gabby Giffords shooting, that they're writing an op-ed saying there's a clear and direct link between that and therefore incitement that was attributed to our client,” he said.
Palin will have another hurdle in pushing her claims forward: The former governor is the sole plaintiff, and the editorial attributed the incitement to her political action committee.
“The plaintiff here is Sarah Palin,” Schulz noted. “I'm not sure that she has a personal claim for a statement made about her PAC, and we'd alike an opportunity to litigate that.”
Skewering the lawsuit’s demands, Schulz called it “very novel” for Palin to seek disgorgement of profits that can be traced to the editorial.
Spotting an opening, Rakoff quipped dryly: “My understanding was The New York Times doesn't make any money.”
Amused, Schulz replied: “I think that is a fair statement.”
The Times newsroom has been reeling lately from massive layoffs to their copy-editing department.
Schulz will file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on July 14.
Should the case proceed, Rakoff tentatively scheduled trial on Dec. 11.
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