Court Buys NYT “We’re So Clueless” Defense in Palin Defamation Suit

A federal judge Tuesday dismissed Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the New York Times. Palin sued after a Times opinion piece in June falsely tied Palin to the 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona. The Times editorial included a long discredited claim that shooter Jared Loughner was motivated by an ad run by Palin that included a graphic with Gifford’s and other congressional districts with cross hairs over them.

“Nowhere is political journalism so free, so robust, or perhaps so rowdy as in the United States,” Judge Jed Rakoff wrote in an opinion dismissing the case. “In the exercise of that freedom, mistakes will be made, some of which will be hurtful to others.”


“Here, plaintiff’s complaint, even when supplemented by facts developed at an evidentiary hearing convened by the Court, fails to make that showing. Accordingly, the complaint must be dismissed,” the decision reads. “Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not.”

Rakoff ruled that Palin’s attorney’s didn’t establish “malice” and “reckless disregard” in the Times editorial; both are required for a public figure to prevail in a defamation case. The Time’s attorneys argued that the mistake was an honest one; that the writers didn’t know the facts. While successful in the court case that defense is also embarrassing to a paper that considers its editorials the product of a national thought leader. It’s admitting it didn’t know the facts of the issue on which it was opining. That embarrassment was compounded by Palin’s attorneys pointing out that the facts were published the same day as the New York Times editorial, in the New York Times:  

In 2011, the shooting of Ms. Giffords by a mentally ill assailant came during a convulsive political period, when a bitter debate over health care yielded a wave of threats against lawmakers. Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate, drew sharp criticism for having posted a graphic online that showed cross hairs over the districts of several members of Congress, including Ms. Giffords — though no connection to the crime was established.

Without Palin being able to establish that the editorial writers of the New York Times actually read their own paper’s articles, Rakoff’s ruling is legally sound. But for the Times, it comes at the expense of embarrassing admissions about the knowledge base from which at least one of its editorials was written.