In 2017, the New York Times published an article regarding a printed map Sarah Palin’s political action committee distributed. It included superimposed images of crosshairs over Democratic congressional districts to be challenged in future elections.
As I wrote then, Sarah Palin filed a defamation suit against the New York Times based on the article’s implicit connection between her PAC’s map and an Arizona mass shooting. The trial court dismissed her lawsuit based on an early evidentiary hearing to determine if she could meet the heightened standard of proof known as actual malice.
It wasn’t the speed with which the trial court dismissed the case so much as the grounds for dismissal that prompted the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse that dismissal and return the case to the trial court.
The case illustrates the balancing courts must do when asked to dismiss defamation lawsuits against the news media — on the one hand, an injured party has a right to seek redress through the courts, and on the other hand, the First Amendment requires courts to decide earlier than in non-First Amendment lawsuits whether a lawsuit has potential merit.
Swift Action Can Mitigate Implausible Claims… If Taken Correctly
If you will remember, Ms. Palin argued that the editorial suggested her PAC’s printed materials played some part in inciting the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona that resulted in seriously wounding Democrat Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others.
The NYT writer’s opinion that there was any connection between the PAC and the shooter’s motive was corrected in the piece two days later. Palin filed her claim shortly thereafter.
Minimizing any chilling effect that might result from an implausible case is paramount in itself to protecting the freedom of the press. However, it seems the court misstepped in its gate-keeping functions after all.
Three-Judge Appellate Court Panel Reinstates Palin’s Case
Upon appeal, a review of the trial court’s proceedings has been concluded. The “unusual” methods for assessing the validity of Palin’s case came into question.
Essentially, the trial court held a special hearing on the actual malice question, then facts from these proceedings were used to dismiss the original claim when the court should have converted the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. Here’s the Second Circuit’s summary from its opinion:
“This case is ultimately about the First Amendment, but the subject matter implicated in this appeal is far less dramatic: rules of procedure and pleading standards. Sarah Palin appeals the dismissal of her defamation complaint against The New York Times (“the Times”) for failure to state a claim. The district court (Rakoff, J.), uncertain as to whether Palin’s complaint plausibly alleged all of the required elements of her defamation claim, held an evidentiary hearing to test the sufficiency of Palin’s pleadings. Following the hearing, and without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment, the district court relied on evidence adduced at that hearing to dismiss Palin’s complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). We find that the district court erred in relying on facts outside the pleadings to dismiss the complaint. We further conclude that Palin’s Proposed Amended Complaint plausibly states a claim for defamation and may proceed to full discovery. We therefore VACATE and REMAND for proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Furthermore, this second look has allowed an opportunity for greater scrutiny of the author’s actions, and it is currently the opinion of the appeals court that there is, in fact, a plausible claim for relief against the Times.
So, the lawsuit is back with the trial court and trial is presently set for August 2020, but that certainly will be delayed because of the Coronavirus pandemic.