Press Freedom, Libel, and Sarah Palin’s Suit against the Times

Sarah Palin is suing the New York Times for an opinion piece that ran on June 14, 2017.  In that opinion piece, the editorial board of the Times referred to a parking lot shooting that had occurred in 2011 in Tucson, Arizona, where six people were killed and Democratic representative Gabby Giffords was wounded.  The editorial, in its original form, implied that Sarah Palin’s Political Action Committee bore some responsibility for the shooting for having displayed a map with Rep. Giffords shown at the end of a gun sight as a target.  In corrected form, the editorial made clear that it was Rep. Giffords’ district that was displayed in that manner, and that no connection had been shown between that campaign ad and the shooting.  (Here is the corrected version.) Not long after, the editorial board member responsible for that careless wording left the staff of the Times.  For the initial suggestion that Palin had done something to encourage violence against Rep. Giffords and other elected officials, Palin is suing for libel.

When it comes to libel suits brought by public figures, there is a clear and well-known rule of law that applies.  It comes from a 1964 Supreme Court ruling, New York Times v. Sullivan.  That case involved a suit brought by the police commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama, over an ad that had been placed by civil rights activists describing his behavior in a bad light.  The ad had some factual errors, which formed the basis of his suit.

As we all know, the First Amendment assures that there will be “freedom of the press,” and as we also know, the press can still be sued for defamation.  How to reconcile those two necessities?  In the New York Times v. Sullivan ruling, the Court articulated the standard for a libel suit brought by a public figure, summed up in these words:

The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

And thus, Police Commissioner Sullivan lost that case, and it will now be the task of Sarah Palin to convince a federal district court in New York City that the New York Times acted with malice or with reckless disregard for the truth when it ran that editorial.

The trial was originally set for this week, but it has had to be delayed, because the plaintiff has COVID.  Palin is unvaccinated, and is quoted as having said such vaccinated would happen “over my dead body.”  (Side note:  Even Trump has gotten vaccinated; he’s been booed at rallies when encouraging his devotees to do same.)  Assuming that her dead body doesn’t become a reality, jury selection is set to start next week.

Full text of New York Times v. Sullivan

Article in Politico, January 23, 2022

Article in Politico, January 24, 2022

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