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Sarah Palin Will Take the New York Times to Trial

— August 30, 2020

A federal judge will allow former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the New York Times to move to trial.

The lawsuit, notes POITICO, centers on a Times editorial published in 2017. Entitled “America’s Lethal Politics,” the article drew a connection between Palin’s policy stances and a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona, which killed six people and severely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Interestingly, Judge Jed S. Rakoff—of Federal District Court in Manhattan—will oversee the case.

Rakoff, says the New York Times, quickly dismissed Palin’s suit after it was first filed. In his initial ruling, Rakoff opined that, even if the paper’s editorial was negligent, it did not constitute defamation.

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

However, Rakoff’s decision was overturned by a three-judge appeals panel last year.

Now, after hearing both sides’ arguments, Rakoff has made something of an about-face. According to the Times, he rejected the publication’s request for a summary judgment. In ordering the case to proceed, Rakoff observed that there is “sufficient evidence to allow a rational finder of fact to find actual malice by clear and convincing evidence.”

Furthermore, Rakoff speculated that it was possible a jury might conclude that the Times’ linkage of Palin to the Arizona shooting was “a purposeful avoidance of truth.”

image of a legal gavel and books
Legal gavel and books; image courtesy of
succo via Pixabay,

“Taking the evidence in light most favorable to the plaintiff, she has sufficiently pointed to enough issues of triable fact that would enable a jury to find by clear and convincing evidence that [former NYT editor Jared Bennett] knew, or was reckless not to know, that his words would convey the meaning in the minds of the readers that plaintiff asserts was libelous, to wit, that she bore a direct responsibility for inciting the Loughner shooting.”

Rakoff scheduled a trial date of February 1, 2021.

Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokesperson for the Times, said Rakoff’s ruling is disappointing but will give the paper a chance to vindicate itself in court.

“We’re disappointed in the ruling,” Rhoades Ha said, “but are confident that we will prevail at court when a jury hears the facts.”

The New York Times and POLITICO add that the Times was quick to issue a correction once it uncovered errors in Bennett’s piece.

Bennett, says POLITICO, had argued that the shooter was “incited” by Palin’s political rhetoric. As evidence, Bennett provided a map created and circulated by Palin’s political action committee, which featured 20 electoral districts targeted by Democrats.

Potentially contestable districts, including Giffords’, were indicated by crosshairs.

However, the campaign map was not actually distributed by Palin’s PAC until after the shooting had already occurred.

Rakoff said the Times’ quick clarification may show the paper did not act with any actual malice.

“The fact that Bennett 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,” Rakoff wrote.

Bennett, says the New York Times, resigned from his editorial position in June, following backlash over his decision to publish a controversial op-ed penned by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.

Cotton, a Republican, had called for a “military” response against Black Lives Matter protests across the United States. Bennett’s decision to publish the piece was criticized as a breakdown in the Times’ editorial processes and protocol.


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