Sarah Palin v. The New York Times – Six Lessons for Public Figures in Defamation Cases

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and the New York Times don’t much like each other.  So much so that Palin sued the Times for defamation.  Her claim stemmed from a Times editorial that wrongly linked her political action committee, and an ad it ran, to the shooting of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in 2011.   This week, highly regarded New York federal judge Jed Rakoff dismissed Palin’s claims.

Judge Rakoff’s ruling was largely based on the First Amendment and the protection it affords to people who talk about, and write about, politics.  Along the way, he delivered some hard lessons to politicians, and others in the public eye, about complaining about unfair treatment in the press.

1. If you’re going to sue someone for defamation, sue someone not something.  It’s not enough to claim the New York Times maliciously published something – you have to say who, working at the Times, said something wrong.

2. If you’re a public figure – someone voluntarily in the public eye – you only get to win a defamation case if you can prove someone said something false about you with actual malice. “Actual malice” means that the speaker lied knowing the words were false or was recklessly indifferent to whether they were true or false.  The Times editorial in Palin’s case said that PAC had published an ad showing Congresswoman Giffords “under stylized crosshairs.”   In fact, the ad showed stylized crosshairs over her Congressional district as an indication it should be targeted for Republican takeover.  In the same vein, the editorial claimed Gifford’s shooting was clearly linked to political incitement.  No evidence, though, established any such link.  But the editorial writer didn’t know of these mistakes at the time of his quick publication.  Even if that was negligent, it wasn’t malicious.

3. When people talk about politics, they get to say more or less whatever they want: “‘[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.'”

4. Just because someone dislikes a public figure, doesn’t mean the false statements he makes about that public figure are malicious.  “‘Defamation judgments do not exist to police [newspapers’] objectivity.'”

5. Just because someone has a profit motive to sell newspapers or tv advertisements, doesn’t mean his false statements malicious.

6. Just because a newspaper editor or reporter broke conventional rules that govern journalism – like checking sources – doesn’t, by itself, make his false statements malicious.

The bottom line: if you get into politics, grow some thick skin.  The First Amendment is going to permit your opponents to throw some sharp elbows.  The last thing courts want to do is get into the business of litigating political disputes.  Those disputes are generally won or lost in voting booths, not courthouses.  Of course, as always, the best revenge is living well.

The opinion can be found at: