Jury Rules Against Palin in New York Times Libel Case

From a Washington Post story by Elahe Izadi and Sarah Ellison headined “Jury rules against Sarah Palin in New York Times libel case”:

A jury ruled against Sarah Palin in her libel case against the New York Times, one day after the judge said he would toss out her claim, saying she had not met the high legal standard required in libel cases involving public figures and journalists.

The jury’s decision conforms with the one made by U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff. On Monday, he told lawyers for Palin and the Times that he would formally dismiss the former Alaska governor’s claim once the jury returned its verdict.

But since he expected his ruling to be appealed — a process that could alter long-standing protections afforded journalists writing about public figures — Rakoff explained that he wanted the jury to keep deliberating, so that future courts to have both his ruling and the jury’s decision to consider.

It was the first libel case against the Times to go to trial in nearly two decades, and its long path to trial has drawn close attention from press freedom advocates. A landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling set a high bar for public officials — later extended to include all prominent individuals — who try to sue journalists for libel.

In 2017, when Rakoff first reviewed Palin’s case — in which the former Alaska governor sued the Times for an editorial that inaccurately suggested a link between some rhetoric from the political action committee and a 2011 mass shooting — he dismissed it, stating that it was doubtful that she could demonstrate that the Times had shown the “actual malice” required by that 1964 standard. The newspaper corrected the error hours later.

Yet an appellate court reinstated Palin’s case, prompting many legal scholars to wonder if the courts’ once-forgiving attitude toward journalistic errors had begun to wane — and whether media organizations may find themselves increasingly beset by costly litigation.

Regardless of the judge and jury’s decision this week, it remains likely that Palin will appeal the case again, at a time when higher courts may be open to reassessing the “actual malice” standard. At the Supreme Court, both Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch have signaled an openness to reviewing the 1964 precedent, which has not been seriously challenged in half a century.

This legal tinderbox of a lawsuit began in the wake of a June 2017 shooting attack on a group of Republican lawmakers who had gathered at an Alexandria baseball field to practice for a game. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) was among those wounded. Within hours, a writer for the New York Times’s editorial page had started crafting an editorial, later published under the headline “America’s Lethal Politics,” that took note of another mass shooting — the one that injured then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six people in Tucson. That shooting, the Times wrote, had been preceded by the circulation of a map by Palin’s PAC that placed stylized crosshairs over targeted Democratic districts. “The link to political incitement was clear,” the Times wrote.

In fact, there was never any indication that the Tucson shooter was motivated by the map. After an immediate backlash, the Times corrected the error the next morning — which attorneys for the newspaper later pointed to as evidence that it had been an “honest mistake.”

Yet the jury spent the better part of three days considering the case — suggesting that it was no easy decision.

On Monday, while the jury was still nearly eight hours into deliberations, Rakoff took the surprising step of announcing that he would rule in favor of the Times’s motion to dismiss, saying Palin had failed to demonstrate that then-editorial page editor James Bennet had known the statements he was rewriting were false, or even that he suspected they might be.

Rakoff could have dismissed the case after hearing arguments and before handing the case to the jury. But as he explained to the court Monday, he settled on his stance over the weekend. And once he realized how he was going to rule, he decided that to not tell the participants sooner was “unfair to both sides.”

“We’ve had very full argument on this. I know where I’m coming out, and I want to therefore apprise the parties of that,” he said Monday.

The jury, however, was not made aware of Rakoff’s decision and continued to deliberate for another day.

When they delivered their verdict, Rakoff thanked them for the “careful attention” they paid to the case, and then explained that he had already decided to dismiss the case.

“Your job was to decide the facts, which you’ve now done. My job is to decide the law,” he said. “And I’ve concluded as a matter of law that the defendants are not liable, too.”

An attorney for Palin, Kenneth Turkel, said his team was “obviously disappointed” with the outcome and is still deciding whether to appeal.

“That being said, anytime a jury convenes and renders a decision, that is our system, allowing a private citizen like Gov. Palin or anyone to seek redress against a giant media company that wields so much power,” Turkel told reporters outside the courthouse Tuesday.

As she left the courthouse, Palin praised Turkel and fellow attorney Shane Vogt for “doing all they can to make sure the little guy has a voice, the underdog can have their say.”

A spokeswoman for the New York Times, Danielle Rhoades Ha, on Tuesday called the jury’s verdict a “reaffirmation of a fundamental tenet of American law: public figures should not be permitted to use libel suits to punish or intimidate news organizations that make, acknowledge and swiftly correct unintentional errors.”

She added: ”It is gratifying that the jury and the judge understood the legal protections for the news media and our vital role in American society.”

Elahe Izadi covers media for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2014 as a general assignment reporter, and has covered pop culture, Congress, demographics and breaking news.

Sarah Ellison is a staff writer based in New York for The Washington Post. Previously, she wrote for Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, where she started as a news assistant in Paris.

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