Jury weighs whether New York Times defamed Sarah Palin or made ‘honesty error’

NEW YORK, Feb 11 (Reuters) – Jurors have begun considering whether to hold The New York Times liable for defaming Sarah Palin, after her attorney on Friday accused the newspaper of falsely associating her in a editorial from 2017 to a mass murder, a link that a Times lawyer called an honest mistake.

In closing argument in Manhattan federal court, Palin’s attorney Kenneth Turkel said the Times and its former editorial page editor, James Bennet, “turned a blind eye” to the facts as ‘they tarnished the reputation of Palin, a former governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican nominee for U.S. vice president.

“The Times has resurrected a horrible and false accusation (which) in its simplest form accused Governor Palin of instigating the murder of six people,” he said. “She has thick skin. This one crossed the line.”

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In response, Times attorney David Axelrod said the op-ed amounted to an “honest error” and was not meant to be a “political blockbuster”.

He also said that Palin did not show it harmed her reputation, citing her continued public appearances after it was published.

“The criticism was about The New York Times for spoiling something,” Axelrod said. “You haven’t seen any evidence that anyone criticized Governor Palin for what was written in the editorial. None, zip, zilch.”

He also urged jurors to consider the need for a strong press to cover the news and express their opinion, citing First Amendment protections to the US Constitution.

“The First Amendment is so important that honest mistakes do not create liability,” he said. “The evidence does not support marking him (Bennet) with a scarlet ‘D’ for libel for the rest of his life.”

Jurors will resume deliberations on Monday, after meeting for 2 1/4 hours on Friday. The trial lasted seven days.

First Amendment experts are closely watching Palin’s case, which touches on longstanding protections for the U.S. media from allegations of defamation by public figures.

Jurors must decide whether Palin proved with clear and convincing evidence that The Times and Bennet acted with “actual malice,” meaning they either knew the editorial was false or had reckless disregard for it. the truth.

The “actual malice” standard came from The New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court in 1964.

Palin signaled that she would challenge that standard on appeal if she lost. She seeks unspecified compensatory damages from the Times and cannot obtain punitive damages.


The lawsuit concerns “America’s Lethal Politics”, a June 14, 2017 op-ed discussing gun control and deploring the deterioration of political discourse.

He wrongly linked Palin to the January 2011 shooting in a parking lot in Tucson, Arizona, where six people were killed and Democratic U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords was seriously injured.

The op-ed was written after a shooting at Congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, where Republican U.S. Representative Steve Scalise was among those injured.

Bennet inserted language that incorrectly linked the Giffords shooting to a map circulated by Palin’s political action committee that the editorial said placed 20 Democrats, including Giffords, in crosshairs.

“The link to political incitement was clear,” the editorial said. It was corrected the next morning, and Bennet testified during the trial that he never intended to blame Palin or her political action committee.

In her own testimony, Palin spoke of being a mother and grandmother still living in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, comparing herself to biblical underdog David versus the Times’ Goliath.

She said the op-ed left her feeling “helpless” and “mortified”, disturbed her sleep and caused people to think less of her.

But while Palin’s public profile has long been lower than in 2008, she did not provide specific examples of how the op-ed damaged her reputation or harmed her.

Turkel said none of this excused the Times.

“All they had to do was give a shit about it,” he said in closing argument. “All they had to do was hate her a little less, and we’re not sitting here today.”

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Reporting by Jody Godoy and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Jonathan Oatis, Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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