A federal judge on Monday said that he will toss a lawsuit alleging the New York Times and its former top editor defamed Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in a 2017 editorial.
Even as jurors continue to deliberate the case—which observers feared might be a significant blow against press freedom—U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff announced that he would dismiss the lawsuit filed against the paper and its former editorial page editor James Bennet, who resigned in June 2020 amid internal backlash to another column. The lawsuit alleges that the Grey Lady intentionally tried to harm Palin in a 2017 piece entitled “America’s Lethal Politics.”
“My job is to apply the law,” Rakoff said on Monday. “The law sets a very high standard for actual malice and in this case, the Court finds that standard has not been met.”
Since Palin is a public figure, Rakoff noted, the threshold to meet the burden of malice is significantly higher—and the former governor’s team did not successfully prove the standard.
Rakoff said he would still allow the jury to reach a verdict, as his decision will likely be appealed and the jury’s ruling will help inform the appeals court. Ultimately, the jury on Tuesday came to the same conclusion as Rakoff that the Times was not liable.
Despite his ruling, Rakoff was critical of the Times for the column, signed by the newspaper’s editorial board, that erroneously linked Palin’s political action committee and its rhetoric to the 2011 Arizona mass shooting that killed six people and severely injured then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
“This is an example of very unfortunate editorializing on the part of the Times,” the judge said, adding that he was “not at all happy to make this decision” and rule in the newspaper’s favor.
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 appellant court. 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.
Roy Gutterman, a Syracuse University professor and director of the school’s Tully Center for Free Speech, believes Rakoff’s impending dismissal “makes a lot of sense, even if the jury was still deliberating at the same time.”
“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, ” Gutterman said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “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,” he added.
Jurors still have decide whether they believe Bennet and the Times acted with “actual malice” when they used the disputed wording in the editorial, meaning that the former editor knew what he had written in the piece was false or that he published the piece with “reckless disregard” for the truth. Palin’s lawyers argued Times editorial staff actively chose not to fact check the column’s claims and deliberately fed a narrative they knew to be false about the Republican.
Despite the uphill battle, Palin lawyer Kenneth Turkel insisted to jurors during closing arguments on Friday that the Times was “keen on turning a blind eye” to the truth and did not seem to care about whether their editorial harmed the former Republican governor. Turkel also argued the Times has a history of slamming conservative politicians and did not care about defaming Palin because “she’s one of them.”
“All they had to do was care a little bit. All they had to do was dislike my client a little less,” Turkel said.
Lawyers for the Times, however, argued that Bennet and the newspaper made an “honest mistake” in erroneously connecting Palin’s PAC to the 2011 shooting. The piece in question was published on June 14, 2017, just hours after Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise was wounded by a man who opened fire on a congressional baseball practice in Washington. The shooter was later identified as a vehement supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“That’s all this was,” lawyer David Axelrod said during closing arguments on Friday. He conceded that no link was ever found between Palin’s map and Jared Lee Loughner, the Arizona shooter who had mental illness and a long-running fixation on Giffords; the Times moved “very quickly” to correct their mistake, he said.
It was an “honest mistake that caused James Bennet to stay up all night,” Axelrod stressed to prove that the former editor did not intentionally try to harm Palin in an editorial that was supposed to be about gun policy. The Times corrected the editorial less than 24 hours after it was published, though the mea culpa notably did not mention Palin by name nor did it remove the Republican’s name in the column itself.
Axelrod went on to argue that Palin did not suffer any career harm as a result of the Times piece, since she has made a career out of paid speeches and TV appearances, including a 2020 stint on The Masked Singer.
Taking the stand on Thursday, Palin stressed to jurors how “powerless” she felt when she saw the editorial and the newspaper’s ultimate decision not to remove her name from the piece.
“I knew that… if I wanted to raise my head and try to get the word out, that there were untruths printed once again, I knew that I was up against Goliath…and I was David,” Palin said.
A day earlier, Bennet took the stand to discuss errors in the editorial process that led to the published piece, which was originally drafted by now-reporter Elizabeth Williamson—including how he did not personally conduct any research himself. That may have contributed to the piece wrongly suggesting a map circulated by Palin’s PAC in 2010 had placed crosshairs on individual members of Congress, when in fact they were placed on congressional districts. Crucially, the original editorial said “the link to political incitement was clear” between Palin’s political activities and the shooting.
“This is my fault right? I am the one who wrote those sentences,” Bennet said on Tuesday, saying that the mistake was born out of rushing to meet a deadline in a move that he has lived to regret.