Reckless disregard or honest mistake? Sarah Palin v. N.Y. Times argues actual malice standard

By Kristen Johnson, Content Editor

A jury on Feb. 15 found the New York Times Company not liable for defaming Sarah Palin. This verdict was returned years after Palin first filed a complaint against The New York Times in 2017.

Reporter James Bennett had published an editorial connecting Palin’s political platform on gun rights to the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona that seriously injured then US-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Palin argued the paper knew there was no connection between her political action committee and the mass shooting.

However, after an evidentiary hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff dismissed Palin’s Complaint in 2017, finding Palin had failed to prove actual malice. Judge Rakoff stated, “[I]f political journalism is to achieve its constitutionally endorsed role of challenging the powerful, legal redress by a public figure must be limited to those cases where the public figure has a plausible factual basis for complaining that the mistake was made maliciously.”

In 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the dismissal on procedural grounds, finding that Judge Rakoff was required to accept pled facts as true because he had not converted the NYT’s motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. On remand, Judge Rakoff dismissed the case again on Rule 50 grounds, finding Palin failed to establish the requisite malice at trial.

This actual malice standard was created in another case involving The New York Times. In 1964, the Supreme Court created the actual malice standard for public officials in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. In this case, an elected commissioner of the city of Montgomery, Alabama, sued the New York Times for libel, arguing the publication inaccurately depicted his actions to control protestors and the arrest record of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., among other things.

The court held that public officials may not recover damages for defamatory falsehoods relating to their official conduct unless they prove with convincing clarity that the statements were made with actual malice. The actual malice standard is considered publication with knowledge of the falsity or reckless disregard for whether it was false or not. The reasoning for this standard is that “[i]t is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not with perfect good taste, on all public institutions.” (Citing Bridges v. California (1940)).

Thus, since 1964, actual malice has been a requirement for public officials seeking to prove a defamation claim. As such, Palin’s case was dismissed because the reporter’s conduct was shown to be an “honest mistake.”

In July, U.S. Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch wrote in separate dissenting opinions in Berisha v. Lawson that the actual malice standard needs to be reviewed; now, it appears Palin v. NYT will not be the case the Supreme Court uses to revisit current libel law.

Works Cited:

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 270 (1940).

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