- Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the New York Times kicked off Thursday.
- It was delayed after Palin tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
- The trial could offer the Supreme Court an opportunity to revisit the “actual malice” standard of defamation law.
A lawyer for Sarah Palin asked jurors Thursday to find the New York Times liable for defamation for a “horrific” 2017 editorial, kicking off a trial that could reshape the way media outlets are permitted to write about public figures.
In a Manhattan federal court, Palin’s attorney Shane Vogt gave opening statements on behalf of the former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate. He said a 2017 editorial that linked her political rhetoric to a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona reflected a “history of bias” and “narrative” against Palin.
“There was no link established between Governor Palin and that shooting,” Vogt said. “There was no link that demonstrated that Palin was responsible for the death of six people.”
The 2017 editorial followed an incident where a man with a history of opposing Republicans shot at US Rep. Steven Scalise and a group of other right-wing Congressmen. The Times article, published in its opinion section, drew a link between the shooting and an earlier one, in 2011, where another man shot then-Democratic Rep. Gabriel Giffords in Arizona, wounding her and killing six others. According to the version of the editorial that was initially published, Palin had contributed to a culture of violent rhetoric because her political action committee posted an image on Facebook that put Giffords’s district under crosshairs.
The Times corrected the article the next day, admitting that there was no established link between Palin’s committee’s post and the Giffords shooting, but Palin sued anyway. She’s seeking unspecified damages.
The trial goes to the heart of defamation law
Palin’s case is the first lawsuit against the Times to go to trial in the United States in 18 years, according to the Washington Post. Since Palin is a public figure, jurors would need to find that the Times and James Bennett, its former editorial page director and a co-defendant in the case, acted with “actual malice,” meaning they knew the language in the editorial was false or had reckless disregard for the truth.
The case comes to trial as two right-wing Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have suggested that the high court revisit New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark 1964 Supreme Court case that set the “actual malice” standard. Since Palin filed the lawsuit filed in federal court, elements of it could ultimately be reviewed by the Supreme Court upon appeals, granting them the opportunity to revisit the standards of US defamation law.
David Axelrod, a lawyer for the Times, said in his own opening statements that Bennett “barely slept that night” and issued a correction as soon as he realized he made a mistake.
“Bennet and the board were especially conscious of not writing a one-sided piece,” Axelrod said. “The goal is to hold both political parties accountable. The political left and the political right — they are both responsible for inflammatory rhetoric unnecessarily demonizing the political enemies.”
The trial resumed after a short jury selection Thursday morning. It was originally scheduled to begin on January 24, but was delayed after Palin, who opposes using safe coronavirus vaccines, tested positive for COVID-19. Palin dined out in restaurants at least twice following her positive test, prompting New York City officials to encourage everyone who came across her to get tested.
Palin plans to testify in the trial, which is expected to last up to two weeks, as is Bennett.
“What am I trying to accomplish? Justice, for people who expect the truth in the media,” Palin told reporters at the courthouse Thursday morning, according to Reuters.
The first witness Vogt called to the stand was Elizabeth Williamson, a reporter at the Times who in 2017 was a writer for the Times’s editorial board, and who wrote the first draft of the article Palin alleges defamed her.
Williamson’s draft did not mention Palin. Bennett, who was then in charge of the Times’s opinion section, added it into the editorial before publishing it on the Times’s website. Most of the questions Vogt asked Williamson Thursday afternoon were about her research into her draft and the emails she exchanged with other Times staffers.
US District Judge Jed Rakoff, who’s overseeing the case, sent jurors home at around 3:30 Thursday and told them the trial would resume at 9 a.m. on Friday.