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New York Times defamation case about power, not politics, Palin’s lawyer says

Sarah Palin in court, in New York City
Sarah Palin, 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate and former Alaska governor, arrives with former NHL hockey player Ron Duguay during her defamation lawsuit against the New York Times, at the United States Courthouse in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., February 11, 2022.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Sarah Palin fell victim to the New York Times’ power when it published a 2017 editorial linking her to a mass shooting six years earlier, a lawyer for Palin said on Friday at her defamation trial against the newspaper.

In his closing argument in federal court in Manhattan, Palin’s lawyer Kenneth Turkel urged jurors to ignore politics and find that the Times and its former editorial page editor, James Bennet, harmed the reputation of Palin, a former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican U.S. vice presidential candidate.

Alluding to Palin’s testimony about being a mother and grandmother still living in her Wasilla, Alaska, hometown, Turkel accused the newspaper of being “keen” on “turning a blind eye” to the facts.

The crux of the dispute “is power, and lack of power,” Turkel said. “The Times resurrected a horrific, false accusation (that) in its simplest form accused Governor Palin of inciting the murder of six people.”

A lawyer for the Times is expected to deliver a closing argument later on Friday.

The trial is in its seventh day.

Palin has signaled that if she lost, she would use the case to challenge New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established strong legal protection for American news media organizations against defamation claims by public figures.

Palin’s lawsuit concerns “America’s Lethal Politics,” a June 14, 2017, editorial addressing gun control and lamenting the increase in incendiary political rhetoric.

It incorrectly linked Palin to the January 2011 shooting in a Tucson, Arizona, parking lot where six people were killed and then-Democratic U.S. congresswoman Gabby Giffords was wounded.

The editorial was written after a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia where Republican U.S. congressman Steve Scalise was wounded.

Bennet inserted language that drew an incorrect connection between the Giffords shooting and a map from Palin’s political action committee that the editorial said put 20 Democrats, including Giffords, under crosshairs.

“The link to political incitement was clear,” the editorial said. It was corrected the next morning.

In 3-1/2 hours of testimony over two days, Palin, 58, likened herself to the biblical underdog David to the Times’ Goliath, saying the editorial left her feeling “powerless” and “mortified,” upset her sleep, and caused people to think less of her.

But while Palin has for many years had a lower public profile than in 2008, she failed under questioning from Times lawyer David Axelrod to offer specific examples of how the editorial hurt her reputation or caused her harm.

Axelrod also focused on various TV appearances that Palin has made.

Jurors will decide whether Palin offered clear and convincing evidence that the Times and Bennet acted with “actual malice,” meaning they knew the editorial was false or had reckless disregard for the truth. Palin cannot obtain punitive damages.

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