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New York Times Didn’t Defame Sarah Palin, Jury Finds—Agreeing With Judge’s Ruling

Topline

The New York Times did not commit defamation when it incorrectly linked former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) to a 2011 mass shooting, a jury ruled Tuesday, bringing the ex-governor’s trial to an end—though the judge in the case already said he would dismiss it, meaning the verdict will only be used when the case is appealed.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin leaves federal court on February 14 in New York City. Getty Images

Key Facts

The jury reached its verdict after starting its deliberations Friday evening, unanimously finding the Times not guilty.

Palin sued the Times after a 2017 editorial incorrectly said her political action committee had “incited” the 2011 shooting that wounded former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.)—it was later corrected—arguing the Times published the claim knowing it was false.

After the jury had already started deliberating, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff ruled on Monday without their knowledge that he would dismiss the case under Rule 50, which allows a judge to issue a judgment before a jury rules if they find there’s no “legally sufficient evidentiary basis” to rule in a party’s favor.

Rakoff found the Times’ comments about Palin were not made with “actual malice,” meaning there’s no “clear and convincing” evidence the newspaper knew they were false or acted “with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not”—though he did criticize the publication’s “very unfortunate editorializing.”

Rakoff said he wanted the jury to continue deliberating the case even after his ruling, so that the appeals court can have both decisions when it considers the case.

Palin’s attorneys have not yet responded to a request for comment.

Crucial Quote

‘We’ve reached the same bottom line but…it’s on different ground,” Rakoff told the jury Tuesday after they delivered their verdict. “You decided the facts, I decided the law. It turns out they were both in agreement in this case.”

What To Watch For

Palin is likely to appeal the case, though media experts cited by Reuters said it’ll likely be harder for her to succeed with both the judge and jury ruling against her. “A jury verdict for the New York Times would be much more appeal-proof than a directed verdict,” media attorney Eric David told Reuters, noting appeals courts are hesitant to overrule jury verdicts. Palin told Insider during the trial she was also “considering” appealing the case to the Supreme Court if she loses in the lower courts. That could carry bigger consequences, as Palin may ask the court to overturn its ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan that established the “actual malice” standard and made it harder for public figures to sue for defamation—a move several conservative Supreme Court justices have signaled a willingness to do.

Key Background

Palin sued the Times in 2017 after an editorial linked an advertisement from Palin’s PAC that put Giffords and other lawmakers’ districts under crosshairs to the subsequent mass shooting, stating, “The link to political incitement was clear.” The Times then amended the piece within a day to take out the incitement reference and note “no connection to the shooting was ever established.” Palin’s legal team asserted the Times knew its comments were false and sought to harm the Republican politician, with Palin attorney Ken Turkel saying during his closing statement, “All [the Times] had to do was…dislike her a little less and we’re not sitting here today.” However, former Times opinion editor James Bennet, who was responsible for inserting the language about Palin, testified he did not mean to imply she had caused the shooting and did not write those comments maliciously, saying he has “regretted [his wording choice] pretty much every day since.” The case marked a rare media defamation case to make it to trial, and if the judge or jury ruled in Palin’s favor, it would have been the first defamation case the Times had lost in more than 50 years.

Surprising Fact

Media law experts say Rakoff’s decision to issue a ruling while the jury was still deliberating was unusual, though decisions from judges under Rule 50 aren’t unheard-of in defamation cases more generally. “The dispute isn't about what he is doing ... It is that he communicated his thinking at this stage of the case,” University of Connecticut law professor Alexandra Lahav told Reuters. University of Georgia media law professor Jonathan Peters tweeted he’s “not aware” of another case that had similar circumstances.

Further Reading

Sarah Palin Loses Defamation Case Against New York Times As Judge Says He’ll Dismiss It (Forbes)

Analysis: Palin's legal fight with the New York Times is far from over (Reuters)

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