Sarah Palin is about to become all outsiders in court. Indeed, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate could enact new law on defamation. Palin won a major victory in a ruling by Judge Jed S. Rakoff, who ruled that she could face trial before a particularly outrageous New York Times editorial in June 2017. The editorial suggested that she inspired Jared Loughner's shooting of then-US Representative Gabrielle in 2011, or incited Giffords, D-Ariz. The case also takes a curious twist due to the involvement of James Bennet, who stepped down in the recent controversy over an editorial by Senator Tom Cotton. I supported Bennet's decision to publish this editor, and denounced the Times' creeping excuse after a backlash.
That decision came after Nick Sandmann survived dismissal motions in his own libel suits and reached an agreement with various news outlets including the Washington Post over false reports of his confrontation with a Native American activist in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
These actions are likely to increase as the media plunges headlong into "echo journalism," where stories are framed to reinforce the bias and expectations of their readers.
The verdict pertains to an editorial in the New York Times attempting to label Palin and other Republicans as inciting earlier shootings. The editorial dealt with the shooting of GOP MP Steve Scalise and other members of Congress by James T. Hodgkinson of Illinois, 66, a liberal activist and supporter of Sanders. The attack inconsistent with a common media account of right-wing violence, and the Times clumsily tried to shift the focus back to conservatives. It was stated that SarahPAC posted a graphic that put Giffords in a crosshair before she was shot. It was wrong, but it was enough for the intended spin: "While there are no signs of incitement as direct as the Giffords attack, of course liberals should adhere to the same standard of decency they demand of the law. "
The editorial was grossly unfair and wrongly worded. In fact, the opinion starts with a bang: “Gov. Palin takes this action to hold James Bennet and The Times accountable for defaming them by falsely claiming what they believed was wrong: that Governor Palin was clearly and directly responsible for a political event in the January 2011 to trigger mass shootings. "
The Times stated, “The link with political incitement was clear. Before shooting Sarah PalinThe Political Action Committee distributed a map with targeted constituencies showing Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized crosshairs. "In reality, the posting used crosshairs across various congressional districts, including Giffords district.
The ruling represents a stroke of luck for Palin after a previous complaint was rejected. In December 2019, Palin filed an amended complaint that had just passed the court order. A three-judge panel restored Palin's libel claim in an August decision.
What makes this judgment significant is that it focuses on an editorial about a public figure. Both elements make it difficult to sue. Opinion is generally protected by tort law and public figures have a higher burden for defamation.
The standard for defamation of public figures and officials in the United States is the result of a decision in the New York Times against Sullivan decades ago. The Supreme Court ruled that tort law cannot be used to override the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech or the free press. The Court sought to give the media "breathing space" by formulating this standard that now applies to both civil servants and public figures. In order to prevail, a litigator must demonstrate either actual knowledge of his falsehood or a reckless disregard for the truth.
Just saying that something is your "opinion" does not automatically protect you from defamation measures if you are asserting facts rather than opinions. However, the courts have protected expression to a high degree in the interests of freedom of expression. This problem was raised in Ollman versus Evans 750 F.2d 970 (D.C. Cir. 1984). In this case, Novak and Evans wrote a devastating piece, including what Ollman called outright misrepresentations. The court admits that “the most problematic statement in the column. . . (is) An anonymous political science professor is quoted as saying: "Ollman has no status within the profession, but is a pure and simple activist." Ollman sued, but Judge Kenneth Starr wrote for the DC Circuit when he found no basis for defamation. This passage seems relevant to secondary posters and activists who use the article to criticize the family:
The reasonable reader reading a column by Evans and Novak on the editorial or op-ed page is fully aware that the statements found there are not "hard" news such as those on the front page or elsewhere in appear in the news sections of the newspaper. Readers expect columnists to make strong statements that are sometimes polemical and rarely seen as balanced or fair elsewhere in the paper. National Rifle Association v Dayton Newspaper, Inc., loc. Cit., 555 F. Supp. at 1309. This sentence is inherent in the notion of an "Op-Ed Page". Due to obvious space constraints, it is also evident that columnists or commentators use condensed expressions without giving the bigger picture. After all, columnists write a column, not an academic article or a full-length book. This broad understanding of the traditional function of a column like Evans and Novak will therefore lead the average reader to consider what is found there as an opinion.
A reader of this particular Evans and Novak column would also have been influenced by the column's express purpose. The columnists directly suggested their interest in ending what they consider to be a "frivolous" debate among politicians about whether Mr. Ollman's political beliefs should prevent him from becoming Head of the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland . Instead, the authors made it clear in the main paragraph of the column that they wanted to encourage more appropriate debate within academia about whether Mr. Ollman's purpose in class was to indoctrinate his students. Later in the column, they openly questioned the measure or method of Professor Ollman's fellowship. Evans and Novak made it clear that they were not about to reach definitive conclusions but rather to reveal what they believed were the key issues raised by the prospective appointment of Mr Ollman.
There is a difference between giving facts and opinions, however, and the Times broke that distinction in its rush to draw attention to political violence against Republicans like Palin.
What is unnoticed about the opinion is how the court clearly outlines the case of Bennet's malice, the key element by the New York Times standard against Sullivan. The Court explains how internal embassies immediately opened up the possibility of right-wing violence.
The case addresses the more insular question of whether a plaintiff actually needs to ascertain malevolence in terms of meaning and falsehood. This concerns the use of words that may be misinterpreted instead of intentionally making false statements. The court ruled that Palin must carry both the meaning and the falsehood. That could lead to further appeals battles.
I was also impressed with how the court suggested that the jury could use the Times' later correction to accept or devalue malice. It is rare for such a correction to be cited as substantive evidence of intent:
The fact that Bennet and the Times printed a correction so quickly is, on the one hand, evidence that a jury may acknowledge a lack of actual malice, as will be explained later. On the other hand, a reasonable jury might conclude that Bennet's reaction and the Times' correction could also be evidence of prior intent to claim such a direct link, why else the need for correction? Indeed, the Correction itself admits that Bennet's original draft incorrectly stated that such a link existed. If, as Bennet now claims, it was all just a misunderstanding, the result of poor wording, it is reasonable to conclude that the final correction would have reflected so much and simply clarified the intended meaning of the editorial.
James Bennet gained national attention after being forced to resign after publishing the Cotton editorial titled "Send In the Troops". The statement discussed the basis for using troops to quell civil unrest, which has happened repeatedly throughout history. Not only has the Times embarrassed itself by giving up its independence, it has also promised to avoid such controversy in the future. (Later on, some of the numbers that insisted the comment was factually incorrect – without having to explain that claim – would fuel bizarre conspiracy theories against the police). Bennet, charged with bias in this case, was forced to include dissenting conservative views in the paper this year. It is ironic that Bennet's alleged bias towards Republicans did not lead to a drive for his removal, but that his mere publication of a Republican view led to his overthrow.
The Palin case could set an important new precedent for issues such as showing malice in relation to the meanings of terms or words. It's also a standout libel case brought to justice in an editorial.
Here's the opinion: Palin versus New York Times