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No defamation: Palin loses suit against NY Times

Kept in the dark that the presiding judge was planning to rule their verdict moot, a New York jury cleared The New York Times of defamation claims brought by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The New York Times prevailed Tuesday against defamation claims that Sarah Palin brought over an old editorial that improperly connected her to inciting mass murder. 

Rendering the jury's verdict less climactic, however, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff already announced Monday that he would dismiss Palin’s complaint regardless of what they decided.

"We’ve reached the same bottom line ... but it’s on different grounds," the Judge explained to jurors on Tuesday afternoon. "You decided the facts; I decided the law. As it turns out, they're both in agreement in this case."

Rakoff had said during the second day of jury deliberations that, even if the The New York Times did injure Palin's reputation, there had been no showing that the newspaper acted out of malice — something required in libel lawsuits involving public figures. A former Alaska beauty queen and mother of five, Palin transitioned from state politics to the national stage when Senator John McCain chose the single-term governor of Alaska as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election.

Judge Rakoff had waited until the jury returned its verdict to inform them of his decision, noting that an appeals court could always overrule him. “This is the kind of case that inevitably goes up on appeal,” he had said Monday in an explanation from the bench. 

The New York Times welcomed the jury's outcome. "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," a Times spokesperson said Tuesday afternoon.  "It is gratifying that the jury and the judge understood the legal protections for the news media and our vital role in American society."

Palin sued the Times back in 2017 after her name appeared in a June 14 article by the Times editorial board on the day gunfire broke out at a congressional baseball practice in Virginia. The editorial titled “America’s Lethal Politics” blamed overheated political rhetoric with inciting gun violence, and it focused in particular on a map that a political action committee for Palin had released featuring the stylized crosshairs of a gun over several election districts controlled by Democrats. Sometime after the map was disseminated, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who represented one of those districts, was shot in the head at a Congress on Your Corner event. 

Times opinion editor James Bennet heavily rewrote the editorial first penned by Elizabeth Williamson and rushed to have it ready by the evening deadline for publication. While the piece questioned whether the Virginia shooting was indicative “how vicious American politics has become,” it also noted that the attack was “indisputably” evidence of the widespread access to guns and ammunition in the United States. 

The article called the link from the shooting to Palin "clear" and "direct" but within 14 hours that language was corrected. Indeed, no evidence has ever been established that the Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner saw the Palin PAC's map. 

Palin has termed the Times' two corrections about the reference to her in the 2017 editorial “woefully insufficient," and she questions the failure to retract the piece or issue an apology. 

Judge Rakoff, a Clinton appointee, initially tossed her claims back in 2017, writing: “Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not." Two years, later, however, the suit was revived by the Second Circuit, which ruled that Rakoff had “erred in relying on facts outside the pleadings to dismiss the complaint.” 

Because Palin is a public figure, longstanding Supreme Court precedent requires that she prove the newspaper acted with “actual malice” against her. That it is an "uphill battle" is something her own attorneys admitted from the trial's get-go. But back in 2016 the very same lawyers bankrupted the celebrity gossip website Gawker in a privacy lawsuit with former wrestling star Hulk Hogan bankrolled by conservative tech mogul Peter Thiel. 

“What this dispute is about in its simplest form is power, and lack of power,” Palin’s attorney Kenneth Turkel had said during the trial. He also called it an example of how The Times “treated people on the right they don’t agree with. ... They don’t care. She’s just one of ‘them.’” 

Palin herself took the witness stand, recounting her mortification over the Times editorial because she is “familiar with what the power of the pen could do." 

“It’s hard to lay your head on the pillow and have restful nights when you know that lies are told about you, a specific lie that wasn’t going to be fixed, that causes some stress,” she testified. “So yeah, tough to get a good night's sleep.” 

Palin’s lawsuit did not seek recovery of lost income, instead claiming she is entitled to at least $75,000 in damages “for the cost of repairing her reputation and/or the cost of correcting the defamatory statement.” Judge Rakoff took punitive damages off the table before the jury of six women and three men began deliberations. The verdict sheet contained one box for them to check: liable or not liable, with another box for monetary damages if the Times lost. 

They deliberated for 13 hours across three days before returning their verdict for the Times.

In closing summation on Friday, attorney David Axelrod for the Times balked at Palin's pretense of reputational harm given her many paid appearances in the years following “America’s Lethal Politics.” In between speeches with the conservative activism group Turning Point USA, Palin even performed the rap anthem “Baby Got Back” on Fox's "The Masked Singer." 

Axelrod called the case “incredibly important because it’s about freedom of the press.” 

The First Amendment protects journalists “who make an honest mistake when they write about a person like Sarah Palin … That’s all this was about — an honest mistake,” Axelrod said.

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