Feb 15, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Appeals could keep Palin v. NYT going for months

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin
Photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By dismissing former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's lawsuit against The New York Times, a district judge kept one of the media's landmark legal protections in place — at least for now.

What they're saying: "I think a lot of media companies and lawyers representing media companies are probably breathing a big sigh of relief right now," said Christy Hull Eikhoff, a media and defamation lawyer at Alston & Bird.

  • The case, Eikhoff noted, "surprised a lot of media entities and lawyers who specialize in First Amendment jurisprudence," because it's "highly unusual for a public figure's defamation case to get as far as it did."

Catch up quick: Palin sued the The Times and its former editorial page editor, James Bennet, over an editorial that falsely linked her to a 2011 mass shooting.

  • Judge Jed S. Rakoff said Palin failed to prove that the paper acted with "actual malice" toward her — the standard the Supreme Court established in the landmark case New York Times v. Sullivan.
  • Rakoff noted that Bennet took actions to check the article before it was published, per NPR’s David Folkenflik.
  • The judge’s rationale “follows both the letter of the law and current precedent for the burden of proof and actual malice, reiterating how high a burden it is,” said Roy Gutterman, professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech.
  • Rakoff previously dismissed this case back in 2017

The intrigue: The judge took the unusual step of throwing out the case while the jury — unaware of his decision — was still deliberating. He said he would allow the jury to keep deliberating so that its verdict can be part of the record when the case is appealed.

  • If the jury also sides with The Times, it will be a "very, very uphill battle" for Palin to win on appeal, Eikhoff said. But if it sided with Palin, it would strengthen her appeal.

What's next: Palin is expected to appeal the decision to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, so this litigation will probably keep going for months. Palin has suggested she ultimately wants to challenge the "actual malice" standard — which would have to go all the way to the Supreme Court.

  • “It's hard to chalk something up as a win or a loss because with appeals, this could still drag on for a year or more,” Gutterman said.
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