New York Times Wins Round One in the Palin Lawsuit

CNN’s Reliable Sources says the New York Times wins the first round in Sarah Palin’s lawsuit against the newspaper:

The New York Times celebrated a legal victory on Monday. To unpack it, let’s go back in time nearly five years. On August 29, 2017, federal Judge Jed Rakoff dismissed Sarah Palin‘s defamation case against The Times, a mere two months after she filed the lawsuit.

“If political journalism is to achieve its constitutionally endorsed role of challenging the powerful,” he said, “legal redress by a public figure must be limited to those cases where the public figure has a plausible factual basis for complaining that the mistake was made maliciously.” Palin failed to do so, he said.

But in 2019, Rakoff was overruled. A three-judge panel from a federal appellate court reinstated Palin’s case after she submitted an amended complaint. The action was taken on procedural grounds — but it meant that Palin could proceed to the discovery process and to trial. So, she did, and that’s what led to Monday’s unusual ruling in federal court.

After reviewing all the evidence and hearing all the testimony, Rakoff said he will dismiss the suit because — as he first said in 2017 — Palin’s camp could not prove “actual malice.” But the jury in the case will continue deliberating, he said, and the verdict will be part of the public record as this case crawls toward an inevitable appeals process. So: Now what?

The decision is unusual but…

“I’m not aware of another libel case in which a trial judge effectively and publicly granted a motion for a directed verdict while the jury continued to deliberate to reach a verdict,” said Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at UGA and a press freedom correspondent for CJR.

Procedure aside, though, “the substantive decision is correct,” he tweeted. “Palin failed by a wide margin to prove actual malice.” What Palin’s legal team showed “was, basically, a sloppy editorial process. It didn’t rise to recklessness, and there was zero evidence of knowledge.”

Deliberations resume Tuesday

The jury will reconvene on Tuesday at 9:30am. While they were meeting on Monday, Rakoff held a hearing to discuss the NYT’s motion that the Palin camp had not presented a “legally sufficient evidentiary basis” for the case. He eventually agreed, though with some displeasure; he said The Times committed “very unfortunate editorializing” but said the high standard for “actual malice” simply was not met.

The NYT welcomed the decision and called it 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.

But The Times’ lawyers know this is just the beginning. As Rakoff said in court, “this is the kind of case that will inevitably go up on appeal.” Some conservative heavyweights want the courts to revisit the high bar established in the 1964 case. The Palin case may be a vehicle to do so. “When she loses, and she will lose no matter what… It will go up to the second circuit and potentially the Supreme Court,” former deputy assistant attorney general Harry Litman said on CNN Monday afternoon. The issue will be “whether this high threshold in American law, which everyone thought would never be disturbed, in fact should be changed.”

Also this:

 — Josh Gerstein notes that “as he issued his ruling, Rakoff gave the Times a mild tongue-lashing…” (Politico)

 — Here is Jeremy W. Peters‘ story about The Times for the paper… (NYT)

 — Law professor Sonja West: “The mere fact that it got this far — and even some of Rakoff’s rhetoric about NYT in his ruling — feel like concerning signs that something has shifted for the press…” (Twitter)

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