Illustration by Timothy Chiu

Sarah Palin v. The New York Times: An Attack on U.S. Press Freedoms

Sarah Palin has been fighting the New York Times for defamation over an article mistakenly accusing her of incitement of violence. But this case goes beyond a since-corrected editorial: it threatens press freedoms under the U.S. First Amendment.

Feb 13, 2022

This week, former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin and The New York Times have been battling in court over a defamation suit filed by Palin after a 2017 article from The Times tied her to political incitement to violence leading to the death of multiple people.
In June 2017, James Hodgkinson shot four members of Congress practicing for their annual fundraising baseball game in Alexandria, Virginia. Many media outlets, including The New York Times, reported breaking news on the shooting. The Times piece came in the form of an editorial which heavily criticized incitement to violence in political rhetoric — a driving factor in the Alexandria incident — and linked the Alexandria shooting to another shooting that took place in 2011 in Tuscon, Arizona which resulted in the shooting of Republican Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and murder of six people, including a nine year old child and a federal judge.
The Times referenced this shooting as a parallel to Alexandria, writing “In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire ... the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.”
A correction was issued less than 24 hours later, but the original version of the piece had already been published in print. The Times even went so far as to share an apology for the mistake on Twitter, which was against company policy, but showed their willingness to acknowledge the mishap. Palin still went on to file a lawsuit against them in the amount of $421,000 in damages that was originally denied but eventually made it to court on an appeal.
The Times is in no way denying that a mistake was made. James Bennet, the former editorial page editor at the time of the Alexandria incident, has claimed full responsibility for inserting the sentence about the link between Palin and the Tucson shooting, and the publication as a whole recognizes the misstep. “We published an editorial about an important topic that contained an inaccuracy. We set the record straight with a correction,” said Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for The Times. “We are deeply committed to fairness and accuracy in our journalism, and when we fall short, we correct our errors publicly, as we did in this case.”
The New York Times made a mistake. There is no denying that they established an unproven connection between Palin’s political work and the tragic 2011 shooting that cast Palin in a very negative light. But, in order to meet the standards for defamation, Palin is tasked with proving “actual malice” on the part of The Times. This is a standard of proof established for defamation cases involving public figures in a 1964 Supreme Court ruling also involving The Times — New York Times Co. v. Sullivan — which marked a landmark case for First Amendment protections. The 9-0 Sullivan case resulted in generous allowances for publishers like The Times in regards to defamation. In fact, it didn’t even find that the act of publishing something false about a public figure was defamatory. A statement had to be both false and constitute actual malice, for which it had to be proven that the publisher of the statement distributed it “with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth of the statement”. This is a very difficult standard for public figures to meet in libel and defamation cases.
In Palin’s case, Bennet acknowledges that the editorial made a mistake, but claims that it was an instance of negligence — operating on a vague recollection that a tie had been established between Palin’s committee and the violence in Tucson — rather than a malicious choice to blatantly ignore the facts of the situation.
This is one of the only high profile defamation cases against a media outlet that’s made it to the courtroom, making it a sign of a changing landscape for journalists and media litigation. But even Palin’s legal team has failed to properly demonstrate how she suffered demonstrable harm due to the original framing of the editorial. Palin cited in her testimony that she had undergone significant emotional distress due to the guilt of being accused of inciting a violent attack and had faced ostracization in some of her social circles after the accusation was levied. However, her team has not proven any financial or significant professional harm that was endured as a result of the editorial.
The issue at hand is that this case is not merely a question of whether or not the editorial board held malicious intent against Palin or caused her harm — it’s a larger question about U.S. constitutional and press freedoms. This is in no way meant to discount the emotional turmoil Palin has undergone following the original version of the editorial, but the question of reputational damage is an incredibly important one in the larger context of this case. If anything, Palin’s reputation was improved by this scandal among the people to whom her reputation matters most: the members of the GOP who placed a target on The Times’s back long ago and have been challenging modern press freedoms since the Nixon-Watergate era.
In 2017, when she first filed the lawsuit, Palin told reporters “What am I trying to accomplish? Justice, for people who expect the truth in the media.” Palin isn’t looking to right an editorial wrong, that mistake has already been corrected to the greatest extent possible and every apology that can be made has already been given. She’s looking to influence a change in media litigation that allows for easier pursuits of defamation cases against media corporations.
And, Palin’s not the only one who’s expressed that current standards grant too much leeway to publishers. Both Supreme Court Justices [Clarence Thomas]) and Neil Gorsuch have issued statements or opinions challenging the outcome of the Sullivan case and arguing for more stringent regulations on defamation in the press. Gorsuch went as far to say that the standard set in Sullivan has “evolved into an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods.”
The Times is a large and successful enough media outlet that a $421,000 fine, at the end of the day, would not jeopardize the future of the organization. The same cannot be said for most news and media outlets in the United States. Without the current broad free speech protections, many companies will face significant threats to their operations anytime an honest mistake is made during fast-paced, breaking news reporting. Many journalists and publishers will hesitate to produce pieces casting any public figures in a negative light, leading to widespread self-censorship among the people whose purpose is to find and reveal truth and inform the people about those we choose to put in positions of power. Rather than take the risk of defamation suits and massive fines, many organizations will simply choose to avoid discussion of controversial topics and figures.
Social media and the internet have undeniably changed the landscape of journalism and the now rapid speed at which (mis)information is disseminated. But this bombardment of unfounded information will not be stopped by placing greater restrictions on the press. If anything, greater press restrictions would lead to even more widespread misinformation in online spaces because of a hesitancy to investigate and report on the topics at hand to uncover the real story.
Palin’s motives, while certainly politically charged, would not only damage liberal media sources if she succeeds in challenging existing media protections. Conservative outlets also stand to lose from a revisiting and a reneging on the 1964 decision. The Times is by no means the only media outlet to face defamation and libel lawsuits, and major outlets like Fox News are currently going through cases of their own.
While most legal observers and commentators argue that Palin is unlikely to come out on top in this case, they note that there is always potential for a jury to attribute lower standards for actual malice or grant greater weight to political bias. Even if Palin loses at the federal district level, she can appeal it at the Supreme Court level. Given the aforementioned comments from Justices Gorsuch and Thomas, it would be a case that would spark intense debate on a national level about the standards set in Sullivan in 1964. A reversal of Sullivan would threaten the institution of journalism and the press as it currently exists in the United States, and while it would perhaps eliminate the small fraction of malicious journalism that exists, it would also jeopardize the vast majority of well-intentioned, serious journalism that serves to inform and protect.
Grace Bechdol is Editor-in-Chief. Email her at
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