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Sarah Palin loses defamation case against 'The New York Times'

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin speaks with reporters as she leaves federal court on February 14, 2022 in New York City.
Michael M. Santiago
Getty Images
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin speaks with reporters as she leaves federal court on February 14, 2022 in New York City.

Jurors found on Tuesday that The New York Times did not defame Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate, in a June 2017 editorialthat wrongly claimed a link between an ad from her political action committee and a mass shooting many months later.

It was a one-two punch for Palin. The unanimous verdict came a day after the presiding judge, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, ruled that he would set aside the jury's verdict — whatever it might be — and dismiss the case. He said Palin had failed to make a sufficient argument that the Times had acted with actual malice to let the case be determined by a jury.

That legal standard of "actual malice," set in a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that also involved the Times, requires that the newspaper either knowingly published damning and false information or recklessly disregarded the likelihood that its claims were likely to prove false.

"You decided the facts. I decided the law," Rakoff told jurors on Tuesday. "It turns out they were both in agreement, in this case."

The newspaper cheered the verdict, with spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha calling it "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."

Palin is believed likely to appeal. Rakoff wanted the verdict to be heard by the appellate court as well. And now, the jury's verdict for the Times arrays even steeper odds against Palin's success.

Rakoff heard the attorneys' arguments and made his announcement Monday outside of jurors hearing so they could continue to deliberate, unaffected by his thinking and so the appeals court could take guidance from the actual verdict. If it were to set aside his ruling, the jury's verdict would still stand.

Palin's attorneys, Kenneth Turkel and Shane Vogt, did not return NPR's requests for comment after the verdict.

An attempt to send a message about "lamestream media"

Palin's lawsuit took more than 4 1/2 years to unfold. In the trial's early stages, Rakoff had also concluded that Palin's team had failed to make a sufficient evidentiary case of actual malice against the Times and its former editorial page editor, James Bennet. He dismissed the case then, too. But the appellate court overruled Rakoff's decision and ordered him to take a fresh look.

That culminated in the trial that wrapped up Tuesday: an intense confrontation between a conservative populist who had often derided the "lamestream media" and the nation's leading news outlet.

Facing a tough and self-imposed deadline, Bennet had sought to rework an editorial the night Rep. Steve Scalise, a conservative from Louisiana, was shot by a leftist. Bennet wanted to make a broad indictment of rampant gun violence and incendiary political speech. An early draft of the editorial invoked SarahPAC's 2010 ad with crosshairs over the congressional districts of Democratic lawmakers targeted for defeat. Bennet added that "the link to political incitement was clear" between the ad and the mass shooting 10 months later in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people and gravely wounded others, including then-Rep. Gabby Giffords.

Though Giffords was one of the lawmakers targeted by the ad, no proof emerged to support the claim that the shooter had been inspired or influenced by the ad. The editorial also wrongly suggested that the crosshairs had been placed over the lawmakers' images.

The Times corrected the errors in less than a day, and the newspaper termed them "an honest mistake." Despite contentions by Palin's attorneys that the paper had caused harm and had acted out of ideological animus, they did not provide any tangible evidence of such claims.

Many media attorneys saw Palin's lawsuit as a sharp challenge to the protections afforded to the press by the Supreme Court's 1964 decision so that journalists could offer tough scrutiny of public figures, even when making mistakes in good faith.

Rakoff denied the request from Times attorney David Axelrod to approach jurors to learn more about the decision-making that went into their verdict. Axelrod noted that such trials are rare and that news outlets like the Times seek insight as a principle and a practical matter.

"It is true that there has been a great decrease of both civil and criminal jury trials," Rakoff said. "It's a terrible thing, because jury trials is where the system gets put to the test."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.