Sarah Palin’s effort to sue the New York Times for libel over an editorial falsely linking her to an assassination attempt on a Democratic lawmaker took two major hits this week. On Monday, the judge in the case ruled to dismiss her complaint against the paper once the jury finished deliberating. And on Tuesday, jurors unanimously returned a verdict, finding that the Times was “not liable” for libel. Palin is expected to appeal the verdict.
The double-whammy began when Judge Jed Rakoff ruled in favor of a motion by the Times lawyers, who argued that her legal team had not provided enough evidence to merit making a claim under the law in the first place, according to Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, who is covering the trial.
The error was in a 2017 op-ed called “America’s Lethal Politics,” published hours after a Bernie Sanders supporter shot at a group of Republican lawmakers at a baseball field outside D.C. The editorial board cited a 2011 campaign map from Palin’s political action committee that put crosshairs over Democratic congressional districts, including a target on Tucson, Arizona, where former representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in a mass shooting that killed six. However, the editorial got the map wrong, claiming at first that it depicted individual Democrats in the crosshairs, not electoral districts. And in a last-minute edit, former editorial-page editor James Bennet added the PAC’s “link to political incitement was clear,” a clause that was also removed. Bennet said in his testimony that he regretted the Palin error “pretty much every day since.”
Though the complaint was dismissed in 2017, a federal appeals court revived it two years later. The paper argued that its speech was protected by the First Amendment and that the error did not rise to the level of “actual malice,” the legal standard by which public figures must prove that a media outlet intentionally published false or defamatory to win a libel lawsuit.
“It was an honest mistake that was made very quickly,” argued the Times’ lawyer David Axelrod (who is not the former top Obama aide). “There was no conspiracy. This was a mess-up. This was a goof,” he said. “And yes, it stinks, but because we value the First Amendment, we tolerate it because nothing was done intentionally.”
Palin, the self-styled “hockey mom,” claimed on the stand, which she called the “penalty box,” that she felt “powerless” and “mortified” in the 14 hours before the article was corrected online. She claimed that the paper “lied before” and that “my view was the New York Times took a lot of liberties and wasn’t always truthful.” When Axelrod objected, Judge Rakoff asked her to be more specific, to which she replied, “I don’t have the specific articles in front of me.”
The trial was briefly delayed after Palin tested positive for COVID-19 last month; Palin, who is not vaccinated, was seen shortly after the positive test eating at an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side.
Palin, who was not seeking a specific amount in damages, claimed at one point that she was the “David” to “the Goliath” of the Times, presenting the picture that by 2017, she was no longer the major political figure she was the decade prior. Axelrod pressed back on the claim, noting all the network TV appearances she made around the time in question, including a run on The Masked Singer. “Objection!” Palin said loudly, confusing Axelrod, who informed her that her attorney was supposed to make objections. “I just thought it was funny,” she responded.