Former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin Loses Defamation Trial against The New York Times

Earlier this month, former governor of Alaska and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin lost her defamation suit against the New York Times when a federal jury found in favor of the newspaper. Palin’s lawsuit had alleged that the New York Times and its former editor, James Bennet, defamed the former governor when it published an opinion column that incorrectly linked Palin to the 2011 Tucson, Arizona mass shooting, in which a federal judge was killed and Democratic House of Representatives member Gabrielle Giffords was wounded.

As many legal commentators and defamation law practitioners had noted, Palin faced an uphill battle going into the trial given the protections afforded to media defendants under current First Amendment case law. Most, however, could not have predicted the chain of events that unfolded in the case. First, as we previously wrote about, the trial itself was delayed when Palin tested positive for COVID-19 on the eve of jury selection. Then following the trial itself, the trial judge announced that he would dismiss the case while the jury was still deliberating. In an unusual move, the judge stated that he would allow the jury to continue deliberations but would ultimately dismiss the case no matter how the jury ruled. In total, the jury deliberated for a little over two days.

The trial was also unique in that it is unusual for defamation lawsuits with public figure plaintiffs to reach trial. In the landmark 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court established a heightened “actual malice” standard for public officials to prevail in defamation cases. Under the actual malice standard, public officials must establish that the defendant either knew that the statement was false or had “reckless disregard” of the falsity of the statement in order to prevail on a claim of libel or slander. Absent actual malice, media defendants are protected by the First Amendment from defamation liability.

As the trial judge explained when announcing his ruling, Palin is expected to appeal the loss. It has been speculated that Palin is ultimately hoping to bring her case to the Supreme Court where Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have expressed a willingness to reexamine the more than half century-old New York Times standard.

Last year, in Berisha v. Lawson, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch wrote in dissent about the shortcomings of the standard laid down in the New York Times case in an opinion denying a writ of certiorari in a case out of the Eleventh Circuit involving a defamation judgment in favor of the defendant. Justice Thomas opined that the actual malice standard created in New York Times v. Sullivan lacked any support in the text, structure, or history of the Constitution or First Amendment.

Justice Gorsuch cited changes in the media landscape of the world over the last half century as reason for revisiting the New York Times standard. He opined that in 1964, large companies dominated the press, often employing legions of investigative reporters, editors, and fact-checkers. Technological innovations over the past sixty years, namely the internet, make it so that today anyone can publish anything for the whole world to see. Whereas there may have been a justification for such a standard “in a world with comparatively few platforms for speech,” Gorsuch reasoned, there is less of a justification for such a standard today where “everyone carries a soapbox in their hands.”

We will continue to monitor the case and cover updates.

Our DuPage County defamation attorneys near Wheaton represent and prosecute defamation claims on behalf of individuals and businesses throughout the Chicagoland area including in Lisle and Downers Grove who have been unfairly and falsely defamed online and offline. We have successfully represented businesses who have been the victim of competitors setting up false rating websites in order to publish defamatory content about our business clients. Beyond slander and libel law, our Chicago business, consumer, and class-action litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and cost effectively as possible, helping clients protect their rights and reputations and allow business clients to get back to business as usual. We serve clients in the Chicagoland area and throughout Illinois. You can contact us locally at 630-333-0333 or online here.

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