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Appeals Panel Poised to Revive Sarah Palin Defamation Suit

— September 24, 2018

A federal appeals panel may revive a defamation suit filed by former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

The three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Court Circuit of Appeals in Manhattan seemed poised to rule in favor of Palin on Friday. Filed against the New York Times, the suit was scrapped last year after another court had heard testimony from a single witness.

According to the New York Times itself, the appeals court found it strange that Palin’s complaint was dismissed after such a cursory investigation.

The suit itself was brought by Palin over a Times editorial entitled ‘America’s Lethal Politics.’ The editorial, recalls its publisher, went online and into print last summer. It was written shortly after a gunman had opened fire on Republican lawmakers in Virginia, an attack that wounded U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA).

U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ). Giffords was the victim of an attempted assassination in 2011. Image via Gage Skidmore/Flickr. (CCA-BY-2.0).

The editorial was ‘corrected twice when readers complained that it appeared to blame a political action committee’ owned by Palin for “political incitement.” An image headlining the article apparently contained a map depicting Democratic lawmakers overlaid by crosshairs, a reference to the 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ).

Early the next morning, the Times amended the article for clarity’s sake, noting that the crosshairs were meant to pinpoint electoral districts rather than individual congressmen.

Palin’s name was tied to the article, leading to the defamation suit. The one-time vice-presidential contender and former governor of Alaska said the article’s imagery ‘maliciously’ linked her to the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords.

The Times, argued Palin’s legal team, was trying to force a connection between the electoral map—distributed by the former governor’s PAC—and the 2011 shooting.

U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff, who dismissed the suit in 2017, said the evidence of defamation put forward by Palin’s legal team “consists either of gross supposition or of evidence so weak that, even together, these items cannot support the high degree of particularized proof” needed to springboard a genuine grievance.

“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 correct,” wrote Rakoff.

“Negligence this may be,” Rakoff continued, “but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not.”

Rakoff’s decision was based in part on a Times’ editor’s testimony that any suggestion that Palin encouraged the shooting of Giffords was completely unintentional.

District Judge John F. Keenan, whose been temporarily assigned to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, said it was “tremendously unusual to have a hearing like that.”

His opinion was backed by the other two members of the panel. Circuit Judge John M. Walker, Jr. criticized the lower court’s handling of the case, saying it appeared the Times’ narrative had been deemed intrinsically more plausible than Palin’s.


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