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No Malice, No Libel: Jury Finds for Defendants in Sarah Palin’s Suit Against the New York Times

In a closely-watched libel case, the first brought against the New York Times to go to trial in 18 years, a nine-member jury yesterday found for the defendants in Palin v. New York Times, concluding that no defamation occurred.

Case Background

Former Alaska governor and 2008 Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin first filed a suit against the New York Times and its then editorial director James Bennet in 2017. The claim alleged that the newspaper deliberately published a June 2017 editorial that erroneously linked a map created by Palin’s political action committee of Democratic districts it had targeted for defeat using the visual image of crosshairs of a sniper rifle to a 2011 shooting outside a Tucson, Arizona grocery store, which left six people dead and critically injured then Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, as a way to damage Palin’s reputation.

When the Times learned of the error, it immediately corrected it. The paper subsequently demanded James Bennet’s resignation in June 2020 for making several editorial missteps, including the one referenced in the suit.

The New York Times requested a motion to dismiss Palin’s suit, which Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Southern District of New York granted, claiming that while publishing the editorial without first confirming the accuracy of all the included facts may have been “negligent,” it did not meet the legal standards of libel.

Palin’s legal team appealed, and in 2019, the Second Circuit of the Federal Court of Appeals reinstated the case, stipulating that enough evidence existed that the defendant was entitled to a jury trial. The Second Circuit only ruled on whether the suit was wrongly dismissed, not on the libel allegation itself.

Understanding Libel

Under U.S. libel rules as codified in Times v. Sullivan, public figures suing for libel must prove that the accused made the false statement with “actual malice.” Such malice only occurs if the reporter or editor knowingly published a false report or did so with “reckless disregard” for the truth.

The Second Circuit sent the case back to the Southern District, which set a trial date of February 1, 2022. Though the trial experienced a slight delay after Palin tested positive for COVID-19, the trial concluded on February 11. In an unusual move, Judge Rakoff issued a decision prior to the jury returning, finding that no reasonable jury could find actual malice.

Deliberately shielded from seeing that ruling, the jury determined that Palin’s legal team did not prove that the New York Times’ acted with actual malice after two days of deliberation. As such, no defamation occurred.

Significance for Authors and Journalists

At a time when misinformation clogs the internet, accurate, fact-based reporting has never been more critical. The market dominance of Google (Alphabet) and Facebook (Meta) has resulted in the closing of more than 2,000 newspapers and reduced the number of experienced reporters, editors, and other journalism staff by roughly 26 percent between 2008 and 2020. An additional 37,000 journalists have been laid off, furloughed, or had their pay reduced since the start of the pandemic, which means fewer veteran reporters.

Operating with fewer resources, less experienced reporters, and the faster turnaround times required to be the first to post breaking news online inevitably increases the risk of errors occurring.

“When journalists or nonfiction authors inadvertently make an error, they must acknowledge the mistake publicly and correct it as soon as possible, exactly what the New York Times did here,” said Authors Guild CEO Mary Rasenberger. “But the jury’s decision, in this case, reinforces the idea that making a factual error, while unfortunate, is not the same as reckless disregard for the truth. If it were easier for politicians and other public figures to successfully sue writers and news organizations for defamation, nearly all investigative reporting would stop. It would be far more difficult to shut down corruption, identify harmful environmental, health or financial practices, and provide American voters with the information necessary to make wise ballot box decisions. Like freedom of expression, a free press and free speech are essential to a democracy, which is why these rights are enshrined in the First Amendment and why the bar for proving libel must remain high.”