Bottom line: Yesterday, on August 29, 2017, Southern District of New York Judge Jed S. Rakoff dismissed, with prejudice, Sarah Palin’s defamation complaint against the New York Times Company.
The dispute arose from an editorial first published on June 14, 2017, following the mass shooting of Republican lawmakers at a baseball field in which Rep. Steve Scalise and several others were wounded. In describing the shooting and making a connection to previous gun-related violence in Arizona that wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the newspaper’s editorial board wrote that the “link to political incitement was clear.” The editorial provided background on the 2011 Arizona shooting by stating that “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 Court (federal district court in the Southern District of New York) dismissed – at the pleading stage – Mrs. Palin’s complaint for defamation, with prejudice, arising from the NYT editorial.
The Court noted that, in her complaint, Mrs. Palin attempted to show that the NYT acted as if it had a collective brain, rather than by showing that the individual responsible for the statement acted with actual malice. “This will not suffice,” the Court explained. Rather, the “state of mind required for actual malice would have to be brought home to the persons in the [media defendant’s] organization having responsibility for the publication of the [statement].” And, in any event, the Court found following an evidentiary hearing, the primary author of the allegedly defamatory statement did not act with actual malice, and Mrs. Palin’s factual allegations to the contrary could not salvage her claim.
The Court’s dismissal of the action at the earliest possible opportunity is noteworthy – it is important to dismiss meritless defamation cases at the outset so that those in the news media are assured that they may exercise their First Amendment rights without being unduly burdened by having to pay for expensive, groundless litigation. Here, the law is clear that public figures like Mrs. Palin, who seek damages for alleged defamatory statements, must meet a very high standard above and beyond simply proving that the statements about them were false. They also must prove by clear and convincing evidence, with particularized facts, that the publisher made the statements with actual malice (meaning that the publisher made the statements with knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard as to their falsity).
In the US, speech on matters of public concern is at the heart of First Amendment protection. Snyder v. Phelps, 131 S.Ct. 1207 (2011). The bedrock principle behind the First Amendment is that we trust the people. The people – not government officials — are in charge. We trust their judgment to get to the right result, and so we have to give them information. The people have to have information to know what is going on in government, and that’s where the press comes in. The public has a right – a need, actually – to be informed about important events about public figures, and the press has to be afforded the freedom to report on such topics without fear of reprisal in the form of expensive, meritless litigation.
Or as the judge explained in dismissing Mrs. Palin’s suit, there is “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” (citing New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964)).
The very first sentence of this thoughtful (and correct) opinion sums it up: “Nowhere is political journalism so free, so robust, or perhaps so rowdy as in the United States.” And “if political journalism is to achieve its constitutionally endorsed role of challenging the powerful, legal redress by a public figure [like Mrs. Palin] must be limited to those cases where the public figure has a plausible factual basis for complaining that [an erroneous, hurtful statement] was made maliciously, that is, with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard of its falsity” (i.e., with “actual malice”).
Finally, the Court explained that the NYT’s editorial board is clearly not a fan of Mrs. Palin. But it isn’t required to be under the law.