Media & Communications Law

2nd Circuit reinstates Sarah Palin's defamation suit against the New York Times

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A federal appeals court has ruled that a federal judge followed the wrong procedure when he dismissed a defamation suit filed against the New York Times by former vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New York reinstated Palin’s suit Tuesday while making clear that it wasn’t ruling on the merits of her claim, report Law360, the Associated Press, Reuters and the Hollywood Reporter.

The appeals court said U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff erred when he held an evidentiary hearing on the newspaper’s motion to dismiss. Such motions are decided based on the pleadings; when an evidentiary hearing is held, the motion must be treated as a request for summary judgment, and both parties should be given a chance to present evidence, the 2nd Circuit said in an opinion by Circuit Judge John Walker Jr.

That didn’t happen in Palin’s case, the appeals court said. The trial judge heard from just one person at the hearing: the author of the New York Times editorial that is the subject of Palin’s suit.

Palin’s suit claims that the New York Times editorial defamed her by linking her to a 2011 mass shooting that killed a federal judge and five others.

The New York Times editorial, which was later corrected, said that Palin’s political action committee had circulated a map of targeted electoral districts before the 2011 shooting that placed 20 Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, under stylized crosshairs. Giffords was wounded in the 2011 attack.

The New York Times later issued a correction saying the crosshairs were placed over targeted electoral districts, not the politicians, and there was no established link between political rhetoric and the shooting.

Indeed, the criminal investigation of the case had indicated that the gunman’s animosity toward Giffords arose before the crosshairs map, according to the appeals court.

The author of the editorial was James Bennet, whose brother was a Democratic senator for Colorado. Two days before the 2011 shooting, someone threatened to open fire on the senator’s offices, Palin had alleged. Both Bennet brothers were “outspoken advocate[s] for gun control,” according to Palin. (Sen. Michael Bennet is currently running for the Democratic nomination for president.)

At a minimum, the 2nd Circuit said, those allegations give rise to a plausible inference that Bennet was reckless when he published the editorial. Based on the allegations, the case may proceed to full discovery, the appeals court said.

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