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Sarah Palin and The New York Times clash in lawsuit testing defamation protection for media

NEW YORK, Feb 3 (Reuters) – Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican candidate for U.S. vice president in 2008, went on trial against The New York Times on Thursday in a highly anticipated libel case that could test longstanding US protections. media.

Palin, 57, is suing a 2017 op-ed that incorrectly linked her political rhetoric to a 2011 Arizona mass shooting that left six people dead and U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords seriously injured, which the newspaper later corrected.

In his opening statement, Palin’s attorney, Shane Vogt, told jurors his client was fighting an ‘uphill battle’ to show the editorial reflected the Times’ knowledge that it was false and his ‘history of bias’. towards her and the other Republicans.

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Times attorney David Axelrod countered in his opening statement that the editorial sought to hold Democrats and Republicans accountable for the inflammatory rhetoric, and said the paper had acted “as quickly as possible” to correct its error.

The trial in federal court in Manhattan could become a test of the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the New York Times v. Sullivan case, which made it difficult for public figures like Palin to prove defamation.

To win, Palin must offer clear and convincing evidence that the Times acted with “actual malice,” meaning he knew the editorial was false or had a reckless disregard for the truth. She seeks unspecified damages for alleged damage to her reputation.

Two conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices and some legal scholars have suggested revisiting Sullivan’s ruling, and Palin has signaled that she would challenge it on appeal if she loses.

“What am I trying to achieve? Justice, for people who are waiting for the truth in the media,” Palin told reporters as they entered the courthouse.

Titled “America’s Lethal Politics,” the disputed June 14, 2017 op-ed was published after a shooting in Alexandria, Virginia in which Republican House of Representatives Steve Scalise was injured.

The editorial questioned whether the shooting reflected how vicious American politics had become.

He then said ‘the link to political incitement was clear’ when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in the 2011 shooting after Palin’s political action committee circulated a card putting Gifford and 19 others Democrats under “stylized crosshairs”.

Former editorial page editor James Bennet, who is also a defendant, had added the disputed language to a draft prepared by Elizabeth Williamson, a colleague on the Times editorial board.

“The key will be to show how the editorial came together,” said Timothy Zick, professor and First Amendment scholar at William & Mary Law School. “Essentially, did the Times do their homework before publishing?


Palin’s attorney, Vogt, said “we’re not here trying to win your votes for Governor Palin or any of her policies,” but rather wanted the Times held responsible for a “particularly horrendous” editorial. and demystified”.

He portrayed Bennet as a “highly educated career journalist” who knew the words he added were wrong, but did not change them.

“He had his narrative, and he stuck to it,” Vogt said.

But Axelrod said Bennet did not intend to suggest that Loughner acted because of Palin, or that readers infer a connection, and that Bennet would testify about “exactly what he meant”.

Axelrod also said that no one at the Times harbored any ill will toward Palin, and that the dispute involved just two sentences in a 12-paragraph op-ed.

“The editorial didn’t even mention her,” he said.

Williamson, who still works at the Times, was the first witness in the trial.

She said Bennet would have been responsible for checking the passages, he added, and that she was unaware of any connection between the Virginia shooting and political rhetoric.

Williamson was asked to discuss an email sent by Bennett before the op-ed, in which he asked if hate speech played a role and suggested he might have it before the Giffords shooting.

The trial was delayed from January 24 because Palin tested positive for the coronavirus.

Palin has publicly stated that she will not be getting the COVID-19 vaccine. She wore a black mask in the courtroom.

The Times has not suffered a loss in a libel case for more than half a century.

In asking that Sullivan be reconsidered, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said little historical evidence suggested that the actual malice standard stemmed from the original meaning of the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Another judge, Neil Gorsuch, said the standard offered a “bulletproof subsidy for publishing lies” by a growing number of media capable of disseminating sensational information without worrying about the truth.

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Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Jody Godoy in New York; Additional reporting by Luc Cohen, Andrew Hofstetter and Hussein Waaile; edited by Grant McCool, Jonathan Oatis and Will Dunham

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.