“Nowhere is political journalism so free, so robust or, perhaps, so rowdy as in the United States,” wrote U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff on Tuesday.
This sentence kicked off a 26-page decision that delivered a decisive victory to the New York Times in a closely-watched libel fight between the newspaper and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Palin sued the Times shortly after the paper published an editorial about a shooting in June in which a gunman opened fire at a baseball practice of Congressional Republicans. An original version of the editorial bemoaned the viciousness of American politics, and suggested that political incitement contributed to gun tragedies.
The editorial cited, in particular, a 2011 Palin campaign flyer that put Democratic politicians in crosshairs and suggested the ad had helped inspire James Loughlin to fatally shoot six people and badly wound Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords that same year. But the description of the poster was inaccurate (it had put districts, not individual politicians, in crosshairs) and so was the allegation that it might have inspired Loughlin to carry out the shooting.
This meant Palin could make the case that the Times‘ editorial had published a false and defamatory statement about her. But since she is a public figure, that wasn’t enough: Palin also had to prove that the Times had engaged in what lawyers call “actual malice.”
A cornerstone of U.S. libel law since the 1960’s, the “actual malice” standard requires public figures to show defendants knew what they published was false or showed a reckless disregard for the truth.
This just wasn’t the case in the case of the gun violence editorial, Judge Rakoff wrote. He said there was no evidence the Times editor who had rewritten and approved the piece knew the statements were incorrect, and pointed out the Times had rapidly corrected them.
Rakoff likewise rejected Palin’s theory that the Times’ liberal political outlook had it led it to deliberately smear, or used the allegation to gin up clicks on the web:
As to the Times in general, the complaint alleges that “there is existing hostility toward Mrs. Palin” and “her name and attacks upon her inflame passions and thereby drive viewership and Web clicks to media companies.” As to the alleged “hostility,” it goes without saying that the Times editorial board is not a fan of Mrs. Palin. But neither the fact of that opposition, nor the supposition that a sharp attack on a disfavored political figure will increase a publication’s readership, has ever been enough to prove actual malice [my emphasis].
This ruling is an important victory for the Times and for news outlets in general, which have suffered high-profile legal defeats—most notably the secretive campaign by billionaire Peter Thiel to destroy Gawker in 2016—and face a sustained effort by President Trump to belittle and delegitimize them.
Rakoff’s ruling also comes after an unusual hearing in which the judge asked James Bennet of the Times to explain how the editorial, which was not signed, had come about. Bennet’s testimony led an editor at the Wall Street Journal to suggest the Times had failed to offer anything more than an “Oops” defense, and was in danger of losing the case.
The judge, however, concluded his decision by suggesting the Palin error was in keeping with those that arise in the regular course of a busy newsroom:
We come back to the basics. 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. Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not. [my emphasis]
Finally, Rakoff noted that Palin would have lost the case anyway on a technicality (she only named the Times as a defendant rather than specifying particular individuals), but that Bennet’s testimony made his decision a final one. Palin can, however, appeal the decision.
You can read the ruling for yourself here.