Judge Dismisses Sarah Palin’s Lawsuit against New York Times

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 24, 2017

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Sarah PalinA federal court judge has dismissed former Alaska Governor and Vice-Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the New York Times.

As the Times itself reported, Palin contended that an editorial linked her to a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona even though the paper allegedly knew that the connection was false.

Baseball Shooting

The editorial was written in the wake of a more recent shooting.

On June 14, 2017, James Hodgkinson, 66,  opened fire on members of the US Congress and current and former aides who were playing baseball at a field in Virginia.

Congressman Steve Scalise, the majority whip, was seriously wounded in the attack.

A Times writer wrote an editorial about the shooting under the headline “America’s Lethal Politics.”

As quoted in the judge’s decision, the original text of the editorial read:

Was this attack evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear/  Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.


The Times later issued a correction the next day:

An editorial on Thursday about the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established. The editorial also incorrectly described a map distributed by a political action committee before that shooting. It depicted electoral districts, not individual Democratic lawmakers, beneath stylized cross hairs.

Palin contended that the paper printed the original version of the editorial even though it knew the allegations about her campaign in it were false.


The tort of defamation is the injury to a person’s reputation either by written expression, which is libel, or oral expression, which is libel.

Under the US Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, in order to establish a defamation claim a public figure (as opposed to an ordinary person) must assert that a statement is not only false and damaging but that it was made with “actual malice.”

(An ordinary person only needs to show that the defamatory statement was made negligently.)

Actual Malice

“Actual malice” means that the defendant knew that the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard as to whether they were false or not.

The judge concluded that Palin failed to prove that the paper acted with actual malice:

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 somewhat pertaining to Mrs. Palin that are very rapidly corrected.

The judge found that the paper’s immediate correction of its error “is much more consistent with making an unintended mistake and then correcting it than with acting with actual malice.”

The judge acknowledged that “It goes without saying that the Times editorial board is not a fan of Mrs. Palin.”

However, the judge concluded, that didn’t mean that the paper acted with actual malice, as defined by the law.

Photo Credit: Sarah Palin, Gage Skidmore, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

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