Palin’s Libel Lawsuit Is a Litmus Test for the First Amendment

Palin’s lawsuit against The New York Times alleges the newspaper defamed her in an editorial it published that incorrectly linked Palin’s own political rhetoric with a mass shooting that took place near Tucson, AZ in 2011 in which six people were killed and 14 others were wounded. The casualties included Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head and was a Democratic member of Congress at the time.

As it happened, the editorial about Palin was published on June 14th, 2017. That same day, a gunman opened fire on several Republican congressmen at a baseball field in Virginia. The editorial suggested the 2017 shooting in Virginia was evidence of how violent American politics had become.

The editorial also suggested Palin’s own violent language might have incited the 2011 shooting, pointing to a map that had been circulated by Palin’s own political action committee that showed crosshairs over congressional districts Republicans were hoping to pick up in the next election, including Giffords’s district.

The Times later corrected the error by saying it had made a mistake in linking the shooting with Palin’s rhetoric, but her libel lawsuit against the newspaper is still going forward in the courts. It is just one in a string of lawsuits against major news outlets that want media outlets to pay a higher price for making a mistake.

The world of daily journalism is a messy one. They work on tight deadlines, and despite their attempts to check all their facts prior to publication, some things are bound to slip through the cracks, especially when it comes to editorial pieces. Unlike news articles, which are supposed to be neutral, editorial pieces focus on the opinions of the author, but studies show readers often can’t tell the difference between an editorial and a news article, which could explain why more editorials and opinion pieces have become the subject of libel lawsuits.

Most libel suits are either dismissed or settled outside of court before they ever get in front of a jury, which makes the fact that this lawsuit will be tried in a federal court in Lower Manhattan all the more unusual.

Most people’s opinion of the case varies depending on their view of the First Amendment. Those who take a broad view of the right to free speech tend to think the evidence against the New York Times is weak. This includes people who believe that, in order to be actionable, false statements need to be, not just false, but made with actual malice, meaning they were made with the intention to inflict some sort of harm (usually financial) on the plaintiff. Proving actual malice is difficult, and many legal scholars are skeptical that Palin’s legal team will be able to provide the necessary evidence in the upcoming lawsuit.

But whether a jury will agree with the broad view of the First Amendment is not guaranteed. Since Donald J. Trump first began his tirades against the media during his 2016 presidential campaign, the legal landscape has changed dramatically, especially where the First Amendment is concerned. Where people once brushed off Trump’s threats of suing the media as empty, now many of those lawsuits have already become a reality. The outcome of Palin’s current libel lawsuit against The New York Times has the potential to significantly alter the way lawsuits of slander and libel are argued all over the country, especially when the media is involved.

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.

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