On Tuesday, a jury dismissed former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s libel case against The New York Times, dismissing her argument that the newspaper willfully harmed her image by incorrectly tying her campaign rhetoric to a mass massacre.
A judge had previously said that if the jury found in Palin’s favor, he would overturn the verdict because she hadn’t proven the newspaper behaved deliberately, which is necessary in libel cases involving prominent figures.
“Of course we’re sad,” Palin said as she walked out of the Manhattan courthouse, adding that she hoped there would be an appeal. She also complimented her two attorneys.
“We were three against The New York Times’ monster crew, and we performed great,” she remarked. “They’re doing everything they can to ensure that the little guy gets a voice and that the underdog has a chance to speak up.”
The New York Times said in a statement that the ruling “reaffirms a basic premise of American law: public persons should not be allowed to use libel claims to penalize or coerce news institutions that make, recognize, and quickly remedy inadvertent errors.”
Palin, a former Republican vice presidential candidate, sued the newspaper in 2017, saying that an editorial advocating gun control published after a man opened fire on a congressional baseball team practice in Washington had harmed her career as a political pundit and adviser.
The shooting, which was carried out by a guy with a history of anti-GOP activities, injured Louisiana Republican Rep. Steve Scalise.
The New York Times faulted hot political discourse in their editorial. It compared the shooting to a 2011 massacre in Arizona that left six people dead and former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords seriously injured, and claimed Palin’s political action committee contributed to the atmosphere of violence at the time by disseminating a map of electoral districts that depicted Giffords and 19 other Democrats as targets.
The New York Times issued a clarification immediately after the editorial was published, saying it had “incorrectly suggested that a relationship existed between political speech and the 2011 massacre” and had “incorrectly portrayed” the map; a tweet said, “We got a key fact wrong.”
Palin portrayed herself as a victim of biased journalism perpetrated by a left-leaning, elitist media establishment determined to discredit a pro-gun-rights politician throughout the trial.
“To read a baseless charge that I had anything to do with murder was upsetting,” Palin stated. “I felt helpless, as if I were up against Goliath, and I was David.”
Palin’s lawyer Kenneth Turkel used the editorial as an example of how The New York Times “handled folks on the right they don’t agree with” in his closing statements. They are unconcerned. “She’s just one of ‘them,'” says the narrator.
In his concluding remarks, Times attorney David Axelrod described the issue as “very significant because it involves journalistic freedom.”
Journalists “who make an honest error when writing on a person like Sarah Palin” are protected by the First Amendment. “This was all about an honest error,” Axelrod explained.
Palin had an uphill struggle. When he added the disputed phrase into the column, the jury had to assess whether former Times editorial page editor James Bennet behaved with “actual malice” against a public figure or with “reckless disregard” for the facts.
While the jury was still deliberate, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff warned attorneys on Monday that Palin had failed to establish that the Times acted maliciously, a decision he believed would be overturned on appeal. He told jurors after their decision was read on Tuesday that he would now write a written judgment.
“We’ve come to the same conclusion,” Rakoff said. “However, it’s on different grounds – you chose the facts, while I chose the law.”
Kenneth Turkel, one of Palin’s lawyers, questioned why the court announced his decision before the completion of the trial, calling it “premature.” “But we’ll have more on that down the road,” he added, adding that an appeal was expected.
Bennet testified at trial that he messed up the edit but meant no damage.
He remarked, “I’ve regretted it pretty much every day since.”
He and other Times employees spoke about the enormous lengths they went to the morning after the column was published to fix the error. He also stated that he wished to apologize to Palin, but that he was unable to do so due to a Times policy prohibiting personal apologies.
The defense has also claimed that the editorial was mostly about provocative political speech and just made a brief mention to Palin’s political committee, which is a different legal organization from her.
Palin retaliated, claiming that the PAC “is me.”
She stated, “My name, my voice, and my face.”
Palin tested positive for COVID-19, prompting a judge to postpone the trial for a week. Away from the courtroom, she made headlines when she was seen eating at an expensive Manhattan restaurant after testing positive for marijuana.