Sarah Palin loses lawsuit against New York Times

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in a New York courtroom for her libel lawsuit against the NY Times. (Jane Rosenberg)

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin lost her libel lawsuit against The New York Times on Tuesday when a jury rejected her claim that the newspaper maliciously damaged her reputation by erroneously linking her campaign rhetoric to a mass shooting.

A judge had already declared that if the jury sided with Palin, he would set aside its verdict on the grounds that she hadn't proven the paper acted maliciously, something required in libel suits involving public figures.

Palin, a onetime Republican vice presidential nominee, sued the newspaper in 2017 claiming it had damaged her career as a political commentator and consultant with an editorial about gun control published after a man opened fire on a Congressional baseball team practice in Washington.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, was wounded in the shooting, committed by a man with a history of anti-GOP activity.

In the editorial, the Times blamed overheated political rhetoric. It likened the shooting to a 2011 massacre in Arizona that left six dead and former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords severely wounded, and said Palin's political action committee had contributed to an atmosphere of violence at the time by circulating a map of electoral districts that put Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized crosshairs.

In a correction shortly after the editorial was published, The Times said it had "incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting" and that it had "incorrectly described" the map; a tweet read, "We got an important fact wrong."

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At the trial, Palin cast herself as a victim of biased journalism by a left-leaning, elitist media institution eager to embarrass a pro-gun rights politician.

"It was devastating to read a false accusation that I had anything to do with murder," Palin said. "I felt powerless – that I was up against Goliath. .. I was David."

In closing arguments, Palin lawyer Kenneth Turkel called the editorial an example of how The Times "treated people on the right they don't agree with. ... They don't care. She's just one of 'them.'"

In his closing, Times attorney David Axelrod called the case "incredibly important because it's about freedom of the press."

The First Amendment protects journalists "who make an honest mistake when they write about a person like Sarah Palin … That's all this was about - an honest mistake," Axelrod said.

It was an uphill battle for Palin: The jury had to decide whether former Times editorial page editor James Bennet acted with "actual malice" against a public figure or with "reckless disregard" for the truth when he inserted the disputed wording into the piece.

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff had informed lawyers on Monday with the jury outside the courtroom that Palin had failed to show that The Times had acted out of malice. Rakoff had said he would wait to formally enter the judgment when the trial ends.

"This is the kind of case that inevitably goes up on appeal," Rakoff said in an explanation from the bench.

At trial, Bennet testified that he botched the edit, but meant no harm.

"I've regretted it pretty much every day since," he said.

He and other New York Times staffers testified about the great lengths taken to correct the error the morning after the piece was published. He also said he wanted to apologize to Palin, but was prohibited by a Times policy against making personal apologies.

The defense also has asserted the editorial was predominantly about inflammatory political rhetoric and only made a passing reference to Palin's political committee, which by law is an entity that's separate from her.

Palin pushed back, saying, the PAC "is me."

"My name, my voice, my face," she said.

A judge had to put off the trial for a week after Palin tested positive for COVID-19. Away from court, she caused a stir by being sighted dining out at an upscale restaurant in Manhattan after testing positive.

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