A jury has found the New York Times did not defame Sarah Palin in a 2017 editorial, a day after the federal judge presiding over the case said he would dismiss the former Alaska governor's libel lawsuit no matter what the jury ultimately decided.
The jury of nine New Yorkers deliberated for almost two full days before reading their verdict in court in downtown Manhattan on Tuesday.
But on Monday, in response to a motion filed by the media outlet, US District Court Judge Jed Rakoff said he would dismiss the case as a matter of law because he found Palin had failed to prove the newspaper acted with “actual malice.”
“My job is to apply the law. The law here sets a very high standard for actual malice and in this case the court finds that standard has not been met,” Rakoff said.
Rakoff did not alert jurors to his ruling and decided to only formally dismiss the case once they had come to their own verdict. With the expectation that his decision would be appealed, Rakoff said that the court of appeals would then have both his ruling on the law and the jury’s view on the facts and could, if it found him to have ruled in error, then choose to reinstate the verdict rather than order a new trial.
"We’ve reached the same bottom line….but it’s on different grounds," Rakoff told the jury on Tuesday. "You decided the facts; I decided the law. As it turns out, they're both in agreement in this case."
Danielle Rhoades Ha, a New York Times spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News the newspaper welcomed the verdict.
"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," Rhoades Ha said. "It is gratifying that the jury and the judge understood the legal protections for the news media and our vital role in American society."
In total, the jury heard seven days of evidence and arguments, with Times editors and writers testifying in exhaustive detail about the process of putting together the editorial, “America’s Lethal Politics,” which was published on June 14, 2017. The opinion piece was drafted by writer Elizabeth Williamson on behalf of the newspaper editorial board in response to a shooting attack on Republican members of Congress by a Bernie Sanders supporter at a Virginia baseball field earlier that day. The aim of the editorial was to bemoan the deadly result of overheated political rhetoric and easy access to guns, Williamson testified.
But then James Bennet, who was the top opinion editor, changed Williamson’s wording about Palin’s PAC and a 2011 shooting in Arizona that severely injured then–member of Congress Gabby Giffords and killed six others, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.
“The link to political incitement was clear,” Bennet wrote in the editorial, describing a map the PAC had released the prior year that featured crosshairs over the districts of Democrats who had voted for Obamacare and were facing reelection in conservative areas. In fact, no such link existed. The Arizona gunman had no clear political views save for a yearslong fixation on Giffords.
Bennet testified that he came to deeply regret the wording on which he settled, but added that he was not trying to assert that Palin’s PAC had caused the violence. Instead, he argued, he was saying it was connected to broader violent rhetoric in politics that preceded the shooting.
The Times added a correction to the editorial less than 14 hours after it appeared online, but Palin sued just weeks later.
Supreme Court precedent in a 1964 case involving the same newspaper, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, shields journalists from liability over honest mistakes they make when covering public officials or figures like Palin. The so-called actual malice standard means reporters are only liable for defamation if they knew the statement was false when they published it or if they had a reckless disregard for its falsity.
On Monday, Rakoff said that even viewing the case as favorably as possible for Palin, he believed her legal team had not produced evidence to prove that Bennet knew the statement was false or that he thought there was a high probability that it was false and recklessly disregarded it. Sloppy, irresponsible, or negligent reporting was not enough, Rakoff said; Palin had to prove Bennet deliberately avoided learning the truth, and she failed to do so.
“The standard is very high and the same standard applies here,” Rakoff said.
Palin’s attorneys argued that the Times had accused her of inciting murder. They sought to portray the newspaper staff as acting with such bias against her and other Republicans that they didn’t bother to fact-check the claim.
“If [only] they had just not been so keen on disregarding and turning a blind eye to it and not reading it and not caring about it,” Palin’s attorney Ken Turkel told jurors in his closing arguments.
In her testimony on Thursday, Palin compared herself to David taking on Goliath, saying she felt “devastated” and “powerless” when the newspaper printed the falsehood.
Her attorneys portrayed Times staffers, and Bennet in particular, as high on “arrogance and a sense of power.” Palin, they said, was used to being attacked due to her extensive time in public life, but she could not abide libel.
“She’s got thick skin. This one crossed the line,” Turkel said. “This case is about Gov. Palin drawing a line in her life when enough is enough.”
In contrast, the Times’ attorneys framed the case as an “honest mistake” that was speedily corrected by a well-meaning staff. They denied there was any intent by Bennet or his colleagues to harm Palin’s reputation.
“There was no conspiracy. This was a mess-up. This was a goof,” attorney David Axelrod said. “Yeah, it stinks. But because we value the First Amendment, we tolerate it, because nothing here was done intentionally.”
“Mistakes get made in journalism, and we take them all very seriously,” Axelrod said. “But in this area, because of the value of the First Amendment, you cannot hold the Times liable for a mistake.”
Gautam Hans, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who studies the First Amendment, told BuzzFeed News he suspected Palin and her legal team may not necessarily have been looking for a victory in the trial court, and that they may instead have been hoping to steer her case to the Supreme Court.
“Two of the justices on the Supreme Court, Justices Gorsuch and Thomas, have both written expressions of skepticism or hostility to Sullivan and its broad protections,” Hans said. “There’s blood in the water.”
He added, “They may lose the battle but win the war.”
Gabe Rottman with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told BuzzFeed News that any Supreme Court change to the Sullivan precedent would have significant detrimental effects on press freedoms.
“It’s the nature of the news cycle for all news organizations to compete to cover public figures, especially elected officials, so you need to have a rule that balances either the unintentional mistake versus the deliberate falsehood, and that’s exactly what the actual malice rule does,” Rottman said. “The honest mistake needs to be protected from significant liability under the First Amendment.”
Times attorneys also argued Palin had suffered no real harm to her reputation as a result of the statement, which was printed in about 610,000 newspapers and viewed online over 150,000 times before the piece was amended and the correction was added. They noted that she continues to be called upon to support other Republicans, including campaigning with Roy Moore in Alabama in 2017 just months after the editorial was published. They also pointed to her paid speeches and media appearances — as well as a 2020 gig on The Masked Singer in which she rapped the Sir Mix-a-Lot song “Baby Got Back” while dressed as a fluffy pink bear — as evidence of her unharmed reputation.
“The Masked Singer, do they put on inciters of violence? Do they put on people who are accused of inciting the violence against a 9-year-old girl?” Axelrod asked. “Come on.”
Palin attended each day of the trial, encircled every morning and afternoon by cameras as she arrived and left court. Her positive COVID diagnosis in January had delayed the start of the trial. She was subsequently spotted dining outdoors while infected at the same restaurant where she had been seen eating inside days before.