Sarah Palin, 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate and former Alaska governor, speaks to the media as she exits the court during her defamation lawsuit against the New York Times, at the United States Courthouse in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., February 14, 2022.
A jury decided Tuesday that the New York Times was not liable in a defamation case brought by Sarah Palin, handing the former vice presidential candidate an uphill climb if she chooses to appeal.
US District Judge Jed Rakoff had already decided Monday that he would dismiss the case. He said that, after listening to a week of testimony, Palin didn’t produce enough evidence that the New York Times acted with “actual malice,” the legal threshold used for cases of potential defamation against public figures.
Rakoff’s decision would override any jury verdict, but he allowed the jury to continue deliberating. If the jury found the Times guilty, an appeals court could reinstate the jury’s decision over Rakoff’s.
Palin told Insider in an interview Thursday that she planned to consider an appeal if she lost the case. If the case ultimately goes to the Supreme Court, Palin said she may ask the nation’s highest court to reconsider the “actual malice” standard.
Two right-wing high court justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have both said they believe the standard is inadequate. A change to the standard would mark a historic shift in rulings involving public figures and the press.
The former Alaska governor filed her lawsuit in 2017 over an editorial published by the Times that June titled “America’s Lethal Politics.” The piece followed the shooting of several Republican members of Congress by a man with a history of opposing their political positions.
The Times article, published in its opinion section, drew a link between the shooting and an earlier one, in 2011, where another man shot then-Democratic Rep. Gabriel Giffords in Arizona, wounding her and killing six others. According to the version of the editorial that was initially published, Palin incited that shooting because her political action committee posted an image on Facebook that put Giffords’s district under crosshairs.
The Times corrected the article the next day, admitting that there was no established link between Palin’s committee’s post and the Giffords shooting. Palin filed her lawsuit two weeks later.
James Bennet, the head of the Times’s opinion operation, inserted the phrases that Palin alleged were defamatory while revising another writer’s first draft. Bennet resigned from the Times in June 2020 after running an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton calling for the deployment of US military troops to quell American civilian protests, but remains a co-defendant in the lawsuit.
Rakoff initially dismissed the lawsuit in August 2017, ruling that the Times made a “mistake” but that the former Alaska governor didn’t prove the mistake “was made maliciously, that is, with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard of its falsity.”
An appeals court later overturned Rakoff’s decision, setting the stage for a trial. It was scheduled to begin on January 24 of this year but was delayed after Palin, whom the court said wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19, tested positive for the virus.
The trial featured testimony from Bennett, Elizabeth Williamson, who wrote the first draft of the editorial, and other New York Times employees. The Times staffers laid bare the editorial process and how the opinion section — which is separate from the newsroom — handles corrections.
Palin also testified about her feelings about the editorial. She alleged that the Times had a record of “lying” about her, but did not specify any examples, and alleged without evidence that the editorial damaged her career prospects.