Sarah Palin’s lawsuit accusing the New York Times of defaming her by incorrectly linking her to a mass murder was thrown out on Monday.
US District Judge Jed Rakoff in Manhattan said he will order the dismissal of the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate’s lawsuit, but in an unusual twist, he will enter his order after the jury finishes its own deliberations.
“I think this is an example of very unfortunate editorializing on the part of the Times but having said that, that’s not the issue before this court,” Rakoff said in court on Monday. “The law here sets a very high standard [for actual malice]. The court finds that that standard has not been met.”
Rakoff said he expected Palin to appeal, and that the appeals court “would greatly benefit from knowing how the jury would decide it.”
The judge’s order effectively pre-empted a possible jury verdict to the contrary, in a case seen as a test of longstanding protections for American media.
The nine jurors – five women and four men – began deliberating on Friday and summarized their work on Monday. They are not being told about the judge’s ruling, and will continue deliberations.
Palin, 58, had sued the newspaper – one of America’s most prominent media organizations – and its former editorial page editor James Bennet, arguing that a 2017 editorial incorrectly linked her to a mass shooting six years earlier that wounded the Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
It is rare for a major media outlet to defend its editorial practices in court, as the Times had to do in this case. Palin had sought unspecified monetary damages, but according to court papers, she had estimated $421,000 in damage had been done to her reputation. The Times has not lost a libel case in a US courtroom in more than 50 years.
Palin had said that if she lost at trial, her appeal might challenge New York Times v Sullivan, the 1964 supreme court decision establishing the “actual malice” standard for public figures to prove defamation.
The lawsuit concerned a 14 June 2017 editorial headlined “America’s Lethal Politics” that addressed gun control and lamented the rise of incendiary political rhetoric.
It was written the same day as a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, where the Republican congressman Steve Scalise was wounded.
One of Bennet’s colleagues prepared a draft that referred to the January 2011 shooting in a Tucson, Arizona, parking lot where six people were killed and Giffords was wounded.
Bennet inserted language that said “the link to political incitement was clear” between the Giffords shooting and a map previously circulated by Palin’s political action committee that the draft editorial said put Giffords and 19 other Democrats under crosshairs.
Bennett said in court that the incident left him feeling guilty and that he had thought about it nearly every day. “It was just a terrible mistake,” he testified.
The Times corrected the editorial and removed any connection between political rhetoric and the Arizona shooting. In a statement to CNN, a Times spokesperson said: “We published an editorial about an important topic that contained an inaccuracy. We set the record straight with a correction. We are deeply committed to fairness and accuracy in our journalism, and when we fall short, we correct our errors publicly, as we did in this case.”
On the witness stand, Palin compared herself, a celebrated conservative politician with a national following, to the biblical underdog David against the Times’ Goliath, while accusing the newspaper of trying to “score political points”.
Palin testified that the editorial left her feeling “powerless” and “mortified” and that the correction issued by the newspaper the morning after publication was accurate but insufficient and did not mention her by name.
She maintained that the Times undermined her reputation by falsely linking her to a mass murder and by not being fast or thorough enough in correcting its error.
Palin, who no longer commands as much public attention as she once did, struggled under cross-examination to provide specific examples of how the editorial harmed her reputation and cost her opportunities.
Reuters contributed to this report
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism