Sarah Palin takes on New York Times in defamation trial

A defamation trial pitting Sarah Palin against the New York Times will open on Monday over a 2017 editorial which the former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential pick says falsely linked her to a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona.

The editorial was published after a shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, in which Steve Scalise, a member of House Republican leadership, was wounded.

The Times said the Tucson shooting, in which six people were killed and a Democratic congresswoman, Gabby Giffords, was severely injured, came after Palin’s political action committee circulated a map putting 20 Democrats including Giffords under “stylised cross hairs”, and that “the link to political incitement was clear”.

Palin objected to language that James Bennet, The Times’s former editorial page editor, added to a draft prepared by a colleague. She contends that the added material fitted Bennet’s “preconceived narrative” and as an “experienced editor” he knew and understood the meaning of his words. She is seeking unspecified damages, but according to court papers has estimated $421,000 in damage to her reputation.

The Times corrected the editorial to remove any connection between political rhetoric and the Arizona shooting. Bennet has said he did not intend to blame Palin.

This weekend, a Times spokesperson told CNN: “We published an editorial about an important topic that contained an inaccuracy. We set the record straight with a correction. 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.”

Many contend that Palin deserves criticism for employing dangerous rhetoric – if not in direct relation to the Tucson shooting.

On Sunday, the gun control campaigner Shannon Watts said: “In 2010, Sarah Palin created a target list with crosshairs of a gun sight over Congress members’ districts. While that campaign may not have been directly related to the Tucson shooting, she helped create today’s culture of political threats and violence.”

But on the right, many hope Palin’s case against The Times will lead to a revision of the high standard for proving libel of US public figures – an aim cherished by Donald Trump among others.

Freedom of the press is enshrined in the first amendment to the US constitution, ratified in 1791. The supreme court adopted the “actual malice” standard, which makes it difficult for public figures to win libel lawsuits, in 1964, in the landmark New York Times v Sullivan decision.

Two justices on the current, conservative-dominated supreme court, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have suggested revisiting that standard and Palin has signaled that she will challenge the Sullivan precedent on appeal if she loses at trial.

Most observers expect her to lose, particularly because the paper so swiftly acknowledged its error. But the Times faces an embarrassing few days in court.

Benjamin Zipursky, a Fordham University law professor, told Reuters Bennet’s “immediate sort of emergency mode or panic mode” upon learning what happened strongly suggested he had been unaware of any mistake.

“Negligence or carelessness – even gross negligence – is clearly not good enough for Palin to win,” Zipursky said.

But Bill Grueskin, a former senior editor at the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News who now teaches at Columbia University, told NPR: “It’s going to be great courtroom theatre.

“You’re going to have Sarah Palin up there on the stand. You’re going to have some of the top people at the Times at least of the opinion section. I don’t see how that can fail to be interesting.”

Grueskin also said that when it comes to rightwing attacks on press freedom, the case “could add more fuel for that fire”.

Roy Gutterman, a professor of law and communications at Syracuse University, told Reuters: “This is a potentially dangerous area. If we give public officials a green light to litigate on editorials they disagree with, where’s the end?”

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