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. Continue reading ›