New York Times Can’t Duck Sarah Palin Defamation Suit

In this Dec. 15, 2016, file photo, Sarah Palin, political commentator and former governor of Alaska, walks on the sideline before an NFL football game in Seattle. (AP Photo/Scott Eklund)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Former Governor Sarah Palin can take the New York Times to trial for a since-retracted editorial linking her to the shooting rampage that killed six people and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a federal judge ruled late on Friday. 

The trial, currently scheduled for Feb. 1 next year, will turn on whether the Times and its editor James Bennet acted with actual malice by printing the quickly discarded claim. 

“The fact that Bennet and the Times were so quick to print a correction is, on the one hand, evidence that a jury might find corroborative of a lack of actual malice,” U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff wrote in a 36-page ruling. “But, on the other hand, a reasonable jury could conclude that Bennet’s reaction and the Times’ correction may also be probative of a prior intent to assert the existence of such a direct link, for why else the need to correct?” 

Palin’s attorneys Shane Vogt and Ken Turkel, from the Tampa-based firm Bajo Cuva Cohen Turkel, said that they look forward to trial. 

“Governor Palin appreciates the court’s ruling and careful consideration of the merits of this case,” they wrote in an email. 

On June 15, 2017, the Times ran an editorial titled “America’s Lethal Politics” connecting the nation’s pattern of mass shootings to overheated political rhetoric, citing the shooting rampage by Jared Lee Loughner as one example. Loughner’s massacre fell after Palin’s political action committee disseminated a map that put crosshairs over Giffords’ electoral district. 

The fact that the Times started walking back the editorial’s suggestion of a link between those events less than a day later did not prevent Palin’s lawsuit less than two weeks later. 

Though Judge Rakoff initially dismissed the case, the Second Circuit revived the governor’s lawsuit last year.  

Palin claimed that no trial would be needed because she claimed her evidence was strong, but the judge reminded her of a longtime Supreme Court precedent protecting news organizations from defamation claims by public figures. 

“More precisely, [Palin’s] argument is that the actual malice rule, which was first articulated more than half a century ago in the days before the Internet and social media, has run its course and should no longer govern our contemporary media landscape,” Rakoff wrote. 

“Binding precedent does not, however, come with an expiration date. To the extent plaintiff believes the actual malice requirement ought to be abolished, she could make that argument to the appropriate court — the Supreme Court. Until then, public figures, like plaintiff, must establish actual malice before collecting damages for defamation.” 

Palin plans to argue at trial that Bennet had an agenda that made him add the disputed language, which was not in editorial writer Elizabeth Williamson’s original draft. That draft included a hyperlink to a contemporaneous ABC News article that reported: “No connection has been made between [the Map] and the Arizona shooting.” 

“Once again, there is considerable evidence that [the Times and Bennet] mount to support the notion that Bennet simply drew the innocent inference that a political circular showing crosshairs over a Congressperson’s district might well invite an increased climate of violence with respect to her,” Rakoff wrote.  

But Rakoff added that Palin can argue to the jury that Bennet “came up with an angle for the editorial, ignored the articles brought to his attention that were inconsistent with his angle, disregarded the results the Williamson research that he commissioned, and ultimately made the point he set out to make in reckless disregard of the truth.” 

A spokesperson for The Times said they were disappointed with the ruling, “but are confident we will prevail at trial when a jury hears the facts.”

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