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Appeals court revives Palin's libel case against New York Times

Sarah Palin libel case against The New York

Sarah Palin libel case against The New York Times over an editorial falsely linking her to gun violence was reinstated Tuesday. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/NICHOLAS KAMM

A federal appeals court Tuesday reinstated conservative icon Sarah Palin's libel case against The New York Times over an editorial falsely linking her to gun violence, ruling that her suit painted a "plausible picture" that the Times published the piece with "deliberate or reckless disregard for its truth."

The ruling by the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not involve any factual findings, only assessing the legal sufficiency of Palin's claims; but the court said the Times' insistence that editorial manager James Bennet made an honest mistake protected by the First Amendment did not have to be accepted at face value.

"The jury may ultimately agree … that Bennet was credible, but it is the jury that must decide," the three-judge panel wrote in its 21-page decision. "We are satisfied that Palin has met her burden to plead facts giving rise to the plausible inference that Bennet published the allegedly defamatory editorial with actual malice."

The lawsuit focuses on a June 2017 editorial on the shooting of a congressman in Virginia, in which the Times discussed the role of political rhetoric in stimulating violence, and said Palin was responsible for "incitement" of the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gaby Giffords by Jared Loughner in Arizona because her political action committee had distributed literature targeting Giffords' district with crosshairs over her.

The editorial was wrong on two counts: Investigations showed Loughner's dislike of Giffords predated the map and had no connection with it, and the map showed crosshairs over Giffords' district but not her face. The Times, which had itself reported the lack of a connection between Palin's map and Loughner, corrected the editorial within 24 hours.

Newspapers writing about public figures are protected from being sued over false and defamatory statements unless they act with malice — knowledge that what they published was false, or reckless disregard for the truth.

Before dismissing the suit in 2017, Manhattan U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, in an unusual procedure, heard testimony from Bennet that he didn't know about reporting that had debunked the link between Loughner and Palin while rewriting the editorial on deadline, or forgot about it. The judge said the testimony and the Times' quick correction rebutted any claim of malice.

The Second Circuit ruling could now open the door to Palin examining internal Times correspondence that might shed further light on Bennet's state of mind, and whether he was reckless in accusing Palin without checking the facts — a process media organizations like to avoid in litigation. "We are disappointed in the decision and intend to continue to defend the action vigorously," a Times spokeswoman said Tuesday.

In the ruling, appeals Judge John Walker said Rakoff's decision to hear testimony from Bennet before ruling on the sufficiency of Palin's complaint was procedurally incorrect, and Bennet's claims were open to question because both the Times and the Atlantic magazine — where he had previously been editor — had both printed articles that said explicitly no connection had been shown between Loughner and Palin's crosshairs map.

The judge also noted that a draft of the Times editorial that Bennet rewrote had a hyperlink to an article that said there was no connection between Palin and Loughner, and that Bennet and his brother, Democratic Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, both became "outspoken advocates" of gun control after the Loughner shooting, Based on Palin's allegations, Walker said, Bennet had reason to be "personally hostile" to Palin, and was "more likely than the average editor‐in‐chief to know the truth."

"Palin’s allegations present a plausible inference that Bennet’s claim of memory loss is untrue," the judge wrote.

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