A federal judge in Manhattan on Tuesday dismissed conservative icon Sarah Palin’s libel suit against The New York Times over a June editorial that incorrectly asserted her political committee had incited the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gaby Giffords of Arizona in 2011.
U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in his 23-page ruling said Palin had failed to plausibly claim that the Times, which corrected its editorial within 24 hours, had acted with “malice” — either knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for truth — which a public figure must show in a defamation claim.
The Times had said that its editorial writer, James Bennet, who testified at a hearing on the suit, made an honest mistake, and Rakoff seemed to agree, citing Bennet’s admission that the false claim came during a quick rewrite on deadline without any research, and the Times’ quick correction.
“What we have here is an editorial, written and rewritten rapidly in order to voice an opinion on an immediate event of importance in which are included a few factual inaccuracies . . . that are very rapidly corrected,” the judge said. “Negligence this may be, but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not.”
The judge also cited the need for the media to have some latitude for unintended errors if it is to fulfill its “constitutionally endorsed role of challenging the powerful.”
“Nowhere is political journalism so free, so robust or perhaps so rowdy as in the United States,” Rakoff said. “In the exercise of that freedom mistakes will be made, some of which will be hurtful to others.”
The editorial was published in June in the wake of the shooting of Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise at a softball game in Virginia. In lamenting the role of violent political rhetoric in stimulating such acts, the editorial cited the Giffords shooting.
It said a map circulated by Palin’s committee in 2011 showing crosshairs over Giffords and other politicians was “incitement” with a “direct” and “clear” link to the shooter Jared Lee Loughner’s later actions. In fact, no link was ever shown, and the crosshairs were over Giffords’ district, not her face.
Rakoff’s decision occurred before Palin’s team had any opportunity for discovery of internal Times correspondence that might have shed further light on whether malice led to the mistakes. Her lawyers, who can appeal, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Times in a statement said it was “delighted” by Rakoff’s ruling, expressed “regret” for its errors — it has never apologized to Palin — and lauded the judge for providing a “reminder of the country’s deep commitment to a free press and the important role that journalism plays in our democracy.”
Palin said the falsehoods were a result of the Times’ liberal bias toward her and its ability to attract an online audience by attacking a conservative firebrand, but Rakoff said motive was not enough to show actual malice because defamation suits are not tools to police a paper’s objectivity.
Bennet, a brother of Colorado’s Democratic senator, testified he didn’t remember that no link had been shown between the Palin map and Loughner, didn’t look at the map he was opining about, and didn’t read the Times’ own reports or other stories hyperlinked in the editorial about the lack of a link.
Rakoff, however, said slipshod practices weren’t sufficient for a libel suit.
“Supposed research failures,” he wrote, “do not constitute clear and convincing evidence of actual malice, even of the‘reckless’ kind.”