Judge And Jury Say Sarah Palin Failed To Prove 'Actual Malice' In Defamation Case Against The NY Times
from the because-she-didn't dept
The last time we wrote about Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the NY Times was in 2017 when Judge Jed Rakoff was dismissing the case, noting that Palin had failed to show “actual malice,” by the NY Times, which is the necessary standard under the seminal defamation case (also involving the NY Times), NY Times v. Sullivan. However, two years later, the appeals court ruled that Rakoff violated procedural rules in doing so, and reinstated the case. It’s been three years since then and over the past few weeks an actual trial was held — which is extraordinarily rare in defamation cases.
The “actual malice” standard is both extremely important and widely misunderstood. It does not mean that the speaker/publisher “really disliked” the subject or wanted to get them. It has a distinct meaning under the law, which is that that the publisher/speaker either knew it was false at the time of publication, or that they posted it with “reckless disregard” for whether it was true or false. And, again, people often misunderstand the “reckless disregard” part as well. It does not mean that they were simply careless about it. For there to be reckless disregard, it means that they had to have substantial doubts about the truth of the statement, but still published it.
In other words, for defamation of a public figure, you have to show that the publisher/speaker either knew what they were writing was false, or at least had strong reasons to believe it was false, and still went ahead with it. This is extremely important, because without it, public figures could (and frequently would) file nonsense lawsuits any time some small mistake was made in reporting on them — and small mistakes happen all the time just by accident.
But, still, the Palin case went to trial and before the jury even came back, Judge Rakoff announced that, as a matter of law (which the judge gets to rule on) Palin had failed to show actual malice. The oddity here was that he did so while the jury was still deliberating, and allowing the jury to continue to do so. The next day, the jury came to the same conclusion, finding the NY Times not liable for defamation, as a matter of fact (juries decide matters of fact, judges decide matters of law — and it’s nice when the two agree).
It seems likely that Palin will appeal, in part because there are a contingent of folks in the extreme Trumpist camp — including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and some of his close friends who have been campaigning over the past few years to over turn the “actual malice standard” found in the Sullivan case.
As many observers have noted, this case is probably not a very good test case for that question, but that doesn’t mean Palin won’t try to make it just such a test case — and even if it’s a weak case, we should be watching closely as any such case moves through the courts — as they are, inherently, attacks on free speech. Weakening the actual malice standard would be a way for the powerful to more easily silence the powerless who speak up against them. The “actual malice” standard is a key element of strong free speech protections — and attempts to weaken it are attacks on free speech.