Analysis: why Sarah Palin’s painfully flawed NY Times lawsuit has hit a brick wall

Analysis: why Sarah Palin’s painfully flawed NY Times lawsuit has hit a brick wall

On Valentine’s Day 2022, U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff announced that he is throwing out Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the New York Times — as the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee has failed to demonstrate that the Times acted with “malice” against her. Daily Beast reporter Pilar Melendez and Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple analyze this development in articles published after Rakoff’s ruling.

In her lawsuit, Palin alleged that the Times did more than screw up in its coverage of her — it acted with “malice.” But Rakoff, announcing his decision, said, “My job is to apply the law. The law sets a very high standard for actual malice, and in this case, the Court finds that standard has not been met.”

Nonetheless, Rakoff allowed the jury to continue its deliberations on February 15.

“The dismissal does not exactly come as a shock — especially since Rakoff made a similar decision back in 2019 that was ultimately reversed by an appellate court,” Melendez explains. “Even Palin attorney Shane Vogt admitted during opening statements last week that the suit was unlikely to succeed, thanks to decades-old protections for journalists offered in part by a precedent involving the Times: the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan ruling that established the standard for defaming public figures.”

It was the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous 9-0 ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan 58 years ago under Chief Justice Earl Warren that set the “malice” standard for a case like Palin’s lawsuit against the Times. Although Rakoff had some criticisms of the Times’ coverage of Palin when he announced his decision, he emphasized that the publication showed no signs of acting with “malice” as the former Alaska governor alleged.

Roy Gutterman, director of Syracuse University’s Tully Center for Free Speech in Upstate New York, agrees with Rakoff’s decision and told the Daily Beast, “Because the plaintiff here is a high-profile public official and figure, proving that the newspaper’s errors were a lot more than an honest mistake was a high burden she could not meet. This is the type of case that shows exactly why we have the actual malice standard under the First Amendment. Public officials have to overcome a high burden for a reason. An editing mistake, though ‘unfortunate,’ as the judge noted, is not proof of actual malice. This case will likely live on through appeals.”

In his Post column, Wemple argues that Palin never showed that James Bennett, the Times’ former editorial page director, was “out to smear Palin.”

“Palin needed evidence — preferably in e-mail form — that Bennet was eager to nail Palin with something he knew was false: an ‘actual malice’ smoking gun,” Wemple observes. “Instead, she offered only e-mails outlining another day at the Times. Palin faced a ‘very high burden,’ acknowledged Rakoff, stressing that First Amendment law is designed to allow a ‘very robust debate involving, especially, people in power and that the whole point of the First Amendment as applied in that context would be undercut if the standard for libel and defamation were not as high as the Supreme Court decreed.’”

Wemple adds, “The journalistic implications of Rakoff’s ruling are wide-ranging. The timing of his announcement — which comes during the second day of jury deliberations — creates a problem for all parties. Figuring that the case will eventually be appealed, Rakoff said that the appeals court will benefit from having a jury verdict alongside his ruling. Should the jury rule for Palin, the appeals court could simply reinstate the jury action without having to order a new trial. All that said, does Rakoff really think that, in 2022, an un-sequestered jury won’t catch wind of his ruling?”

It remains to be seen what decision the jury will ultimately reach in Palin’s lawsuit. But one thing is for certain: Judge Rakoff clearly believes that from a defamation standpoint, she has failed to make her case.

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