A federal appeals court on Tuesday reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by Sarah Palin against The New York Times, giving the former Alaskan governor another chance to square off with the newspaper.
In its decision, the appeals court ruled that district court Judge Jed Rakoff, who dismissed the case in August 2017, had “erred in relying on acts outside the pleadings to dismiss the complaint.”
The court said it further concluded that the amended complaint from Palin, who was also the Republican nominee for vice president in 2008, “plausibly states a claim for defamation and may proceed to full discovery.”
As a result, the appeals court sent the case back to the district court for “further proceedings consistent with” its opinion.
In a statement, Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for The Times, said the newspaper was “disappointed in the decision” and intends to “defend the action vigorously.”
Libby Locke and Ken Turkel, lawyers for Palin, said in a statement, “This is—and has always been—a case about media accountability. We are pleased with the Court’s decision, and we look forward to starting discovery and ultimately proceeding to trial.”
Palin had sued The Times in 2017 over an editorial that drew a link between an advertisement from Palin’s political action committee and a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in which six people were killed and then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was severely wounded.
In the editorial, which was published online the day of the shooting at a congressional baseball practice in June 2017, the editorial board suggested that Jared Lee Loughner, the man who carried out the Tucson massacre, was incited by a map from Palin’s PAC’s ad, which placed crosshairs over the congressional districts of several Democratic lawmakers, including Giffords’.
There is, in fact, no evidence that Loughner even saw the map, much less that he was motivated by it. The Times issued a correction the next day, but Palin filed her suit two weeks later.
Judge John M. Walker Jr., writing on behalf of the three-judge panel, opened his opinion by saying, “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.”
Walker wrote that Rakoff flouted procedures by relying on an evidentiary hearing with the editorial’s author, The Times’ editorial page editor James Bennet, to make his decision last summer.
“It is clear to us that the district court viewed the hearing as a way to more expeditiously decide whether Palin had a viable way to establish actual malice,” Walker wrote in the 21-page opinion. “But, despite the flexibility that is accorded 6 district courts to streamline proceedings and manage their calendars, district courts are not free to bypass rules of procedure that are 8 carefully calibrated to ensure fair process to both sides,” he said.
When Judge Rakoff ruled in The Times’ favor, he wrote in his opinion that, “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.”
Tom Kludt contributed reporting to this story.