A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit brought by Sarah Palin against the New York Times, writing that Palin had failed to prove that the newspaper defamed her when it ran an op-ed connecting her rhetoric to the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011.
“What we have here is an editorial, written and rewritten rapidly in order to voice an opinion on an immediate event of importance, in which are included a few factual inaccuracies somewhat pertaining to Mrs. Palin that are very rapidly corrected,” Judge Jed Rakoff wrote in a key section of his decision. “Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not.”
The Times’ editorial page ran the clumsy article in question on June 14, the day a gunman opened fire on a congressional baseball practice, severely injuring Congressman Steve Scalise. The Times wrote of the potential for incendiary political rhetoric to translate into violence, invoking Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage in 2011, in which he killed six people and injured 13 others, including Congresswoman Giffords. It then flatly stated that there was a clear link between images Palin’s organization posted online and the gunman’s target:
That incendiary rhetoric from the GOP inspired Loughner was a popular narrative in the aftermath of the shooting, but one that turned out to be shaky at best; Loughner’s mental illness, not a specific political ideology, was soon acknowledged as the most important factor in his actions. (The Times also incorrectly stated that the maps Palin’s organization had posted identified individual lawmakers with targets over their faces; in fact, electoral districts were targeted.) After an immediate online backlash, the Times reworded the offending section and appended a correction. Nevertheless, Palin filed suit later in June.
The bar to prove defamation of character by the media is famously high in American courts. It’s necessary to show “actual malice” on the part of the offending party, which implies either knowingly printing a falsehood or acting with “reckless disregard for the truth.”
To get at the question of whether the Times crossed that line, Rakoff had previously asked New York Times editorial-page director James Bennet to testify in a pretrial hearing. Under questioning, Bennet framed the phrasing in the op-ed as an innocent mistake rather than a knowing attempt to distort Palin’s association with the Loughner shooting. That, apparently, was enough for Rakoff.
The judge used his decision to mount a strong defense of American press freedom.
In a statement, the Times said it was “delighted” with the decision.