A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed Sarah Palin's defamation lawsuit against the New York Times, finding that Palin failed to show that the paper acted "maliciously" in publishing an editorial that included incorrect information about a pro-Palin political action committee.
Palin had sued over a June editorial that the Times published in response to a shooting at a baseball field in Virginia where members of Congress and others were practicing for a charity baseball game. The editorial referenced a 2011 mass shooting that injured former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and incorrectly drew a link between the shooter and a map circulated by the PAC that used crosshairs to highlight the districts of certain Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act, including Giffords.
Palin argued that the Times defamed her by essentially saying in the editorial that she was responsible for the 2011 shooting, and she claimed the paper knew the information was false when it published the piece. After editors at the Times learned about inaccurate information in the editorial — the original version also incorrectly described what the map looked like — they issued corrections. The paper's lawyers argued that errors were not intentional.
US District Judge Jed Rakoff, who sits in Manhattan, wrote in Tuesday's opinion dismissing the case that Palin failed to present any facts that showed that the author of the editorial deliberately published inaccurate information in order to harm Palin.
"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," Rakoff wrote.
Palin's legal team did not immediately return a request for comment. She was represented by some of the same lawyers who successfully sued the now-defunct Gawker on behalf of wrestler Hulk Hogan, whose legal name is Terry Bollea.
A spokesperson for the Times said in a statement that they were "delighted" with the decision.
"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. 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," the statement said.
Rakoff did reject some of the Times's other arguments in favor of dismissing Palin's lawsuit. The Times, for instance, had argued that Palin couldn't sue for defamation because the article did not refer to her personally, but rather her affiliated political action committee. The judge wrote that the language in the editorial could be viewed by a "reasonable reader" to be about Palin herself.
The judge also said that some or all of the statements at issue linking the crosshairs map to the 2011 shooting were "fact-laden statements that can be proven false," another bar for a defamation lawsuit to clear to survive a motion to dismiss.
But Rakoff found that Palin's lawsuit fell short in alleging that the Times acted with actual malice, which is a standard that public figures have to meet to win on defamation claims.
Rakoff cited testimony that he heard earlier this month from James Bennet, the Times's editorial page editor, who wrote the contested sections of the editorial. Bennet said that when he was writing — he was editing a draft that another editorial page board member initially wrote — he hadn't read other articles that addressed the lack of a proven connection between the crosshairs map and the 2011 shooting. The judge noted that as soon as Bennet was alerted to the mistake, he immediately corrected it.
"Such behavior is much more plausibly consistent with making an unintended mistake and then correcting it than with acting with actual malice," Rakoff wrote.
Ties that Bennet had in the past to liberal publications as well as to the Democratic party — his brother is Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet — were also not enough to show malice against Palin, he added.
Rakoff dismissed the case "with prejudice," which means Palin can't try to amend her lawsuit to try to address the problems that Rakoff identified in his opinion. She can appeal the order.
"If political journalism is to achieve its constitutionally endorsed role of challenging the powerful," Rakoff wrote, "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."