Sarah Palin lawsuit against The New York Times challenges free speech protections

The boundaries of the U.S. Constitution and freedom of the press are being deliberated in Manhattan, as a jury considers Sarah Palin's libel case against The New York Times. It centers on a 2017 Times' editorial about dangerous rhetoric and political violence. Deanna Paul, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was in the courtroom for the trial, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The boundaries of the First Amendment to the Constitution and freedom of the press are being deliberated in Manhattan, as a jury consider Sarah Palin's libel case against The New York Times.

    William Brangham has more on the trials key moments and what's at stake.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, this case centers on a 2017 New York Times editorial about dangerous rhetoric and political violence.

    It was written the day a gunman opened fire on congressional Republicans during a baseball practice, critically injuring Representative Steve Scalise. The Times editorial drew a false link between another shooting, the 2011 attack on Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others, and a map that included Giffords' district marked with what seemed to be gun crosshairs. The map was published by Palin's political action committee.

    The editorial said — quote — "The link to political incitement was clear."

    When The Times realized its mistake, it issued a correction the very next day. But in court this week, Palin took to the stand to make the case that the main author of that piece, former opinion editor James Bennett, had political motivations to harm her, that he knew the claim was wrong, and that he published it anyway. The Times counters, he made an honest mistake and quickly corrected it.

    At stake here are the free speech protections for reporters and their news organizations.

    Deanna Paul of The Wall Street Journal was in the courtroom for this trial. She's also a former prosecutor herself, and she joins me now.

    Deanna Paul, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    So, Sarah Palin says that she was defamed and libeled by this editorial, and she has to prove the legal term of actual malice by The Times towards her. What is that? And what is the evidence that her team cited in the case?

  • Deanna Paul, The Wall Street Journal:

    So, the standard of actual malice is, it comes out of a Supreme Court case from decades ago.

    And it's a very high bar for public figures like Sarah Palin to prove. She has to prove that Mr. Bennett and The New York Times either knew the statement that they were publishing was false or recklessly disregarded the truth in publishing it.

    And The Times, their lawyers argued today during closing argument that, as you said, it was an honest mistake, and, as soon as they were made aware of it, they made every effort to correct it. They issued a correction. They revised the editorial, and they actually tweeted out an apology, which Mr. Bennett said was against company policy.

    But — so they went to great efforts to correct it. Ms. Palin still sued. She said that she was mortified by the editorial, and that she suffered emotional damage as a result of it.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that she also had to prove that she had suffered some tangible harm from this editorial. What evidence did they cite in that regard, that she actually was harmed by this?

  • Deanna Paul:

    So what her lawyers said today in closing arguments, they were asking for damages for the emotional suffering that she went through. And she talked about how she would have to go for runs to clear her head.

    They were not asking for financial harm. But she did say that her reputation suffered as a result of this.

  • William Brangham:

    And I understand that she was also asking for punitive damages from The New York Times, but the judge didn't allow that. Explain what happened there.

  • Deanna Paul:

    So, this actually happened yesterday, on Thursday. After the jury had left for the day, he ruled that the jury would not be permitted to consider punitive damages. He said that the evidence of ill will on the part of Mr. Bennett was very — I think his words were quite modest. And so he didn't think that should go to the jury.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Deanna Paul:

    I'm sorry.

  • William Brangham:

    I'm sorry.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Brangham:

    Sarah Palin, as many people know, she was one of the leading lights of the GOP, considered a possible presidential candidate.

    How did she do — this case largely revolves around her and her being attacked by this editorial. How did she do on the stand?

  • Deanna Paul:

    That's a great question. And I'm sure that's something that the jury will be talking about during deliberations.

    As you know, credibility of the witnesses is very important. And that's something that her attorneys brought up as it related to James Bennett today. But she was on the stand for a full day and testified at length about the way that it impacted her, how she responded to it, and the damage and harm that she says she suffered as a result of it.

  • William Brangham:

    So, The Times' principal defense, as you mentioned, was that they — this wasn't intentional. The minute they recognized that there was a mistake here, that the shooter in the Giffords case apparently had no knowledge of this map put out by Sarah Palin's PAC, but The Times went to great lengths to sort of put forward evidence proving that this wasn't a conspiracy.

    What kinds of things did they cite?

  • Deanna Paul:

    They — in the summation today, they talked about this idea that, as soon as they realized there was an error, they went to great lengths to correct it, and, if this was a conspiracy, or if this was really a political vendetta against conservatives, that they wouldn't have done that right away, and the fact that it corrected it before Ms. Palin said that she was going to sue.

    And that really was their argument, that they took all of these steps. Mr. Bennett said that this was a terrible mistake that he has regretted every day since, and everything that they could do in their power to get the correction and the apology out to as many people as possible, that they did that.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you remind us about some of the broader context here? This isn't just about Sarah Palin vs. The New York Times. This is a much more fundamental First Amendment issue with regards to the press.

  • Deanna Paul:

    So, this is one of the rare defamation cases against a major media outlet that's actually gone to trial. We haven't seen one in several years.

    And it, again, goes to this idea of actual malice, which is a standard that was set forth in Times v. Sullivan. And like I said earlier, it makes it hard for public figures to prevail in defamation suits against major news organizations.

    And you have — at this point, there's been two Supreme Court justices who have said that they're open to reconsidering this standard. And The Times v. Sullivan standard has also been a target for Republicans for some time. And so if Ms. Palin does prevail in this case, it could very much change the media law landscape, and it could make it easier for other politicians to sue for defamation against news organizations.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Deanna Paul of The Wall Street Journal, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Deanna Paul:

    Thank you for having me, William.

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