MANHATTAN (CN) — Tossing defamation claims by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin against The New York Times, a federal judge opened his ruling Tuesday with a stirring ode to U.S. press freedom.
“Nowhere is political journalism so free, so robust, or perhaps so rowdy as in the United States,” the 26-page opinion by U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff begins. “In the exercise of that freedom, mistakes will be made, some of which will be hurtful to others.”
Spearheaded by the legal team that bankrupted Gawker, Palin’s lawsuit was widely feared by media observers to be a danger to press rights.
Palin sued for defamation over a June 14 editorial by the Times called “America’s Lethal Politics.” Hours before the piece ran, Louisiana Republican Rep. Steve Scalise was critically injured when a shooter opened fire at a congressional baseball practice.
The Times saw a connection between overheated political rhetoric and citizen violence, and mentioned Jared Lee Loughner’s 2011 shooting rampage as one example.
Before those attacks, which killed six people and wounded Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Palin’s political action committee disseminated a map that put crosshairs over Giffords’ electoral district.
Though it is unclear whether Loughner ever saw the image, the Times editorial accused Palin of having a “clear” and “direct” connection to his shooting.
Rakoff focused Tuesday, however, on the newspaper's timely correction of the piece.
“Responsible journals will promptly correct their errors; others will not,” Rakoff wrote. “But if political journalism is to achieve its constitutionally endorsed role of challenging the powerful, legal redress by a public figure must be limited to those cases where the public figure has a plausible factual basis for complaining that the mistake was made maliciously, that is, with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard of its falsity.”
A New York Times spokesman said the newspaper is "delighted" with the outcome.
"Judge Rakoff's opinion is an important reminder of the country's deep commitment to a free press and the important role that journalism plays in our democracy," he said. "We regret the errors we made in the editorial. But we were pleased to see that the court acknowledged the importance of the prompt correction we made once we learned of the mistakes.”
Though Palin expressed dissatisfaction with the Times’ multiple corrections and clarifications, Rakoff called out her filing Tuesday for “material deficiencies.”
“For example, it failed to identify any individual at the Times who allegedly acted with actual malice, positing instead a kind of collective knowledge unrecognized by the law in this area,” the ruling states.
Rakoff said the testimony of editorial writer Elizabeth Williamson and her editor, James Bennet, eliminated all doubt about the piece’s intent.
“To put the matter simply, Bennet — as the undisputed testimony shows — wrote the putatively offending passages of the editorial over a period of a few hours and published it very soon thereafter,” Rakoff wrote.
“Shortly after that, his mistakes in linking the SarahPAC Map to the Loughner shooting were called to his attention … and he immediately corrected the errors, not only in the editorial itself but also by publishing corrections both electronically and in print,” the ruling continues. “Such behavior is much more plausibly consistent with making an unintended mistake and then correcting it than with acting with actual malice.”
Appointed by Bill Clinton, Rakoff is known for his acerbic wit, and his poison pen against the Department of Justice for failing to prosecute white-collar crime in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Lesser known is his defense of press freedom, which was on display more than a decade ago when he awarded the Associated Press unredacted transcript access to tribunals that the Defense Department held for Guantanamo detainees.
Rakoff burnishes that legacy with today’s ruling.
“We come back to the basics,” he wrote. “What we have here is an editorial, written and rewritten rapidly in order to voice an opinion on an immediate event of importance, in which are included a few factual inaccuracies somewhat pertaining to Mrs. Palin that are very rapidly corrected. Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not.”
Kenneth G. Turkel, from the Tampa-based firm Bajo Cuva Cohen Turkel, did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment.
The Times was represented by David Schultz, of Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schulz.
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