Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against The New York Times has been dismissed by a federal judge on the grounds it failed to show that NYT writers knew they were publishing falsehoods beforehand.
This ends a fairly short and uncomplicated legal saga — but publishers and media companies can expect more libel and defamation lawsuits from aggrieved public figures as part of their partisan posturing.
The former Alaskan governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate sued the NYT in June over its publication of an editorial rehashing old, basically debunked claims that some of Palin’s campaign materials incited the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
The editorial got a few important details wrong.
It claimed Palin’s campaign materials had shown a target symbol juxtaposed over Giffords’ face; in fact, it was an image of her electoral district. There is also no evidence to suggest that the shooter, a schizophrenic young man named Jared Lee Loughner, had ever seen the campaign materials in question.
The newspaper issued a correction and apology for the error, admitting that no connection had been established, but Palin’s lawyer contended this “did not approach the degree of the retraction and apology necessary and warranted by The Times’ false assertion that Mrs. Palin incited murder.”
In support of that argument, the lawsuit noted the correction didn’t even mention Palin, as the editorial had.
Judge Jed Rakoff of the District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan ruled that the lawsuit was “materially deficient” — it failed to demonstrate malice. Her case also suffered because the grounds under contention — a supposed link which can be neither proved nor disproved — were so ambiguous.
Rakoff summarized: “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.”
An NYT spokesperson stated: “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.”