Sarah Palin’s libel lawsuit against The New York Times was already unusual in that it made it all the way to trial, whereas most libel lawsuits settle outside of court. The lawsuit recently became even more noteworthy when the defense attorneys asked the court to rule in their favor, even if the jury ruled in Palin’s favor, and Judge Rakoff said he would. The decision effectively nullified the jury’s decision before the jury had a chance to reach a decision.
The jury did rule in favor of The New York Times, but there is no longer any way to tell whether their decision was influenced by the judge expressing his willingness to overrule their decision if they ruled in Palin’s favor. The judge’s announcement certainly put the jury in an awkward position, since they were instructed to stay away from news about the case to avoid swaying their decision, but they were most likely able to read reports of the judge’s decision prior to making their own.
Nevertheless, Judge Rakoff’s ruling is not surprising. He had dismissed the case back in 2017, but in 2019 an appellate court reversed his decision and sent the case back to his court.
Palin and her legal team viewed this lawsuit as an opportunity to weaken the protections the First Amendment extends to news outlets so they can report without fear of a lawsuit like this one making it to trial. The lawsuit is one of many filed by right-wing figureheads against various news outlets in an attempt to silence those outlets.
This particular lawsuit against The New York Times focused on an editorial the newspaper published that compared Sarah Palin’s violent political rhetoric to the increase in gun violence in America, specifically an incident in which a shooter opened fire at a political rally in Tucson, Arizona in 2011, seriously injuring 17 people, including then-Democratic Representative, Gabrielle Giffords, and killing six others. The editorial blamed a political map that had appeared on Palin’s political action website with crosshairs overlaying 20 Democratic districts, including Gabrielle Giffords’s district, but there was no evidence that the shooter had ever seen, much less been motivated by, the political map.
The New York Times published a correction and apology the next day, and in court, James Bennet, the author of the editorial in question, said he felt guilty about it and thought about it on an almost daily basis. Palin and her attorneys claimed Bennet had acted with ill intentions towards her, regardless of his current show of remorse.
According to a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court made in 1964, public figures who file libel lawsuits have a high bar to clear in order to be successful. One of the key elements needed to successfully sue for libel is that the plaintiff must prove the defendant knew the statement was false when they made it, and that they made the statement with the intention of inflicting some sort of harm (financial or otherwise) on the plaintiff.
While Judge Rakoff admitted that The New York Times made mistakes in publishing the editorial piece in question, he said Palin’s lawyers failed to provide evidence that the case met the criteria for libel for a public figure.
Now that both judge and jury have ruled against her, Palin will most likely be appealing the decision, hoping for a more favorable ruling in the appellate courts. However, because the judge made his own ruling separate from the jury’s, he has effectively ensured that the case will never be retried. Appellate courts can either rule with Judge Rakoff or overturn his ruling, but they cannot order the case to be retried in the lower court.
At Lubin Austermuehle, we help clients navigate the complex laws and emotionally charged pathways to a court victory or settlement in slander and libel cases, as well as a vast range of other disputes from class action suits to breach of contract. We serve clients throughout Chicagoland from Waukegan, to Skokie and beyond. You can contact us online here or call us on our locally at 630-333-0333. Take advantage of our FREE consultation, where we can discuss your specific needs and wishes and our ability to meet them.