Sarah Palin Sues New York Times for Defamation

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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: Aug 5, 2017

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Sarah PalinSarah Palin, former Alaskan governor and the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, sued the New York Times for defamation, alleging that an editorial falsely linked her to a 2011 shooting in Arizona that claimed the lives of six people. The Times later corrected the editorial and admitted that it made a mistake, although the error it corrected is not the error that Palin claims it made.

Alleged Defamation

The editorial, entitled “America’s Lethal Politics,” suggested that the recent shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise during a charity baseball game followed “a sickeningly familiar pattern” of political shootings. To establish that pattern, the editorial cited a 2011 shooting which wounded Gabrielle Giffords, who was then serving in the House of Representatives, as well as more than a dozen other victims.

When it was first published, the editorial claimed that the 2011 shooting’s “link to political incitement was clear.” It also condemned the Scalise shooting while claiming that it involved “no sign of incitement as direct as in the Giffords attack.” The Times later published a correction, acknowledging that no link between political incitement and the 2011 shooting was ever established.

The editorial also stated that before the 2011 shooting, Palin’s political action committee circulated a map depicting Democratic lawmakers beneath stylized crosshairs. In its correction, the Times noted that the map depicted electoral districts, not individual lawmakers.

The editorial was published on June 14, 2017. The Times tweeted its correction the next day. The current online version of the editorial has been revised to make clear that no connection between political incitement and the Giffords shooting was ever established. The current online version also includes a correction that the Times ran in its print edition two days after the editorial was published.

Defamation Complaint

Palin sued the Times, in the words of her complaint, to “hold The Times accountable for defaming her by publishing a statement about her that it knew to be false: that Mrs. Palin was responsible for inciting a mass shooting at a political event in January 2011.” In that same introductory paragraph, the complaint alleges that the Times “falsely stated as a matter of fact to millions of people that Mrs. Palin incited Jared Loughner’s January 8, 2001 shooting rampage at a political event in Tucson ….”

Lawsuits are often filed by politicians and celebrities for reasons that are unrelated to obtaining vindication in court. The publicity that surrounds a lawsuit may serve its own purpose, even if the lawsuit is ultimately dismissed. For that reason, readers must parse complaints filed in high-profile cases with a careful eye.

Indeed, much of Palin’s complaint reads like a press release, or perhaps an editorial of her own. The complaint accuses the Times of exploiting Scalise’s shooting and of capitalizing on Palin’s name, refers to Palin as “a devoted wife, mother, and grandmother,” and calls the published corrections “half-hearted.”  The complaint also states that the editorial’s speculation about the motives behind the Giffords shooting was in “stark contrast” to the Times’ “fact check” reporting that people were “falsely blaming” Democratic politicians for Scalise’s shooting.

The editorial speaks for itself. It does not state as a fact that “Palin was responsible for inciting a mass shooting.” The editorial did imply that Palin’s PAC was linked to “political incitement,” but Palin and her PAC are different entities.

Palin’s Difficult Hurdle

The law of defamation allows individuals to seek a remedy for harm done to their reputations by the publication of false statements of fact. The Times has acknowledged that it incorrectly stated that the 2011 shooting’s “link to political incitement was clear.” The Times also acknowledged that it incorrectly stated that the crosshairs on the map created by Palin’s PAC pointed at lawmakers when they actually pointed at the lawmakers’ districts.

Assuming that Palin can persuade a court that the editorial stated facts rather than opinions about the “link to political incitement,” the bigger hurdle for Palin is that false statements alone do not establish defamation. Palin is a public figure, and she cannot be defamed unless the false statement was made with actual malice. A statement is made with actual malice when it “was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether or not it was false.”

Viewing the Times as an institution rather than an editorial board, there is evidence that the truth resided in the Times’ institutional memory. Palin’s complaint points out that the Times had published several stories pointing out that no connection had been established between the Giffords shooting and the map showing Democratic congressional districts in crosshairs.

Whether the Times experienced an institutional failure of memory or a reckless disregard of the facts is a question that a jury might be asked to resolve, but only if a judge decides that Palin and her PAC are one and the same. That seems unlikely. Notwithstanding the rhetoric in the complaint’s introduction, the editorial did not accuse Palin of anything. Nor did the editorial contend that Palin controlled the actions of her PAC or was responsible for production of the “crosshairs” map.

Moreover, the Times promptly corrected the error. While Palin’s complaint suggests that the correction was not “meaningful,” the correction was factually accurate. It may be difficult to prove malice in the face of the newspaper’s prompt admission that it erred.

The Times’ lawyers have asked the district court to dismiss the complaint, in part because the editorial was promptly corrected and in part because the editorial referred only to Palin’s PAC, not to Palin. Those are powerful arguments. Whether they will persuade the court to grant a dismissal at this early stage, however, remains to be seen.

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

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