Judge Tosses Sarah Palin's Defamation Suit Against The New York Times, Says No Actual Malice
from the more-speech-still-better-than-shutting-people-up dept
On June 14th, the New York Times published an editorial concerning violent rhetoric being deployed during political races. In it, the author made an incredibly bad claim:
Was this attack [by Hodgkinson] evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.
This just simply wasn’t true. To begin with, Palin’s map contained only political districts under stylized crosshairs, not faces of legislators. Not only that, but there’s been no conclusive link between Palin’s crosshair map and Loughner’s shooting. This was noted in two corrections published by the New York Times the next day, which also excised the two false statements.
Sarah Palin sued the New York Times for defamation a few weeks later because it apparently just wasn’t enough to catch a “fake news” purveyor making some truly laughable assertions in an op-ed. The defamation suit has died a quick death, although Palin’s claims were investigated with a bit more thoroughness than usual once the parties had entered their motions.
An examination of the run-up to the publication of the erroneous op-ed showed there was no actual malice in the New York Times’ assertions — just some really bad op-edmanship. The statements were provably false, which is key to defamation claims, but there also has to actual malice. And while many people think they know what’s meant by actual malice, it’s probably not what you think. In the legal context, actual malice requires “knowledge” of falsity before publication or reckless disregard. It doesn’t just mean that you were trying to be mean (indeed, you could argue that “actual malice” doesn’t require any… um… actual… malice). In this case, the court just can’t find any knowledge of falsity — and thus, no actual malice. [PDF link]
[E]ven then, a defamation complaint by a public figure must allege sufficient particularized facts to support a claim of actual malice by clear and convincing evidence, or the complaint must be dismissed.
Here, as already mentioned, the complaint fails on its face to adequately allege actual malice, because it fails to identify any individual who possessed the requisite knowledge and intent and, instead, attributes it to the Times in general. This will not suffice.
The court also points to the proactive measures taken by the Times to correct the misstatements after they were brought to its attention as evidence of a lack of actual malice. The corrections weren’t prompted by a lawsuit or threats of a lawsuit, but rather by readers displeased the Times would make a connection between Palin and Loughner that had never been established.
Even if the Times hadn’t made these immediate efforts, the court still would likely have cut the paper as much slack as it could, given the First Amendment implications of the lawsuit.
Nowhere is political journalism so free, so robust, or perhaps so rowdy as in the United States. In the exercise of that freedom, mistakes will be made, some of which will be hurtful to others. Responsible journals will promptly correct their errors; others will not. But if 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, that is, with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard of its falsity.
To entertain the theory the press can be held civilly responsible for swiftly-corrected errors would chill reporting on pretty much anything. To take the press to court is to take the First Amendment to court. A higher standard must be met by plaintiffs.