Sara Palin, a former Republican vice-presidential candidate, sued the New York Times for defamation seeking $75,000 in damages. A federal judge has dismissed the case. The dismissal is related to the high standard of proof required where the plaintiff in a defamation case is a public figure.
Palin objected to a New York Times editorial that was printed in June, 2017, on the day a left-wing gunman opened fire at a baseball field where congressmen were practicing for an annual charity game. Several were injured, the most serious being Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana. The editorial in question suggested the shooting that severely wounded Representative Gabby Giffords in 2011 was in part provoked by a list of electorial districts circulated by Palin’s political action committee. Within a day the paper issued a correction, saying there was no such link. The apology came first in a tweet, thanking readers for calling the newspaper on the mistake, followed by a printed statement at the end of the editorial saying that no link has been established between political rhetoric and the incident in which Giffords was shot.
Defamation refers to untruthful statements or pictures that are false and damage a person’s reputation. The target can sue the person spreading lies for monetary damages. To be successful when the plaintiff is a public figure (a person of great public interest or familiarity such as a politician, government official, celebrity, business leader, sports hero, movie star, etc.), it is not enough to prove that statements were false. In addition, plaintiff must prove that the defamer acted with malice. In this context malice means the speaker either knew the information was false, or the statement was made with reckless disregard (great carelessness) of the truth. This higher standard is imposed because the constitutional right of free speech includes the right to criticize government officials and other famous people. As a society, we want to encourage uninhibited and robust debate on public issues, and not punish a speaker who makes a mistake honestly (unintentionally).
In July of this year the newspaper filed a motion to dismiss Palin’s case. The issue was whether the defamation complaint contained sufficient allegations of actual malice. In dismissing the case the judge wrote, “What we have here is an editorial, written and rewritten rapidly in order to voice an opinion on an immediate event of importance, in which are included a few factual inaccuracies, somewhat pertaining to Palin, that were very rapidly corrected. Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not.”
The Times responded to the ruling with appreciation for the important reminder of the country’s strong support for a free press, and expressed again regret for the error.
The dismissal was with prejudice meaning Palin cannot start the lawsuit again. She can however appeal the dismissal. If she does, she would argue that the judge made an error of law in ruling that the error in the editorial was not made with malice.
For further information, see the earlier KnowNow blog post published soon after Palin began the lawsuit, dated June 16, 2017.
Why does the law require the additional element of malice when a public figure sues for defamation? Do you think it is a good requirement? Why or why not?