Sarah Palin takes The New York Times to court, raising First Amendment concerns

A court case in New York began Thursday that will pit a Republican political star against a media giant and could put the First Amendment on trial. Sarah Palin versus The New York Times is a case more than four years in the making after the former governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, sued the times for defamation. Geoff Bennett reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today was the start of a court case in New York that will pit a Republican political star against a media giant and could put the First Amendment on trial.

    Geoff Bennett has our report.

  • Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK):

    What am I trying to accomplish?

  • Question:

    Yes.

  • Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin:

    Justice.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Sarah Palin vs. The New York Times, a court case more than four years in the making.

    It started in June 2017, the day a gunman opened fire on congressional Republicans practicing for a charity baseball game. Four people were shot, including then-Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was critically injured.

    It mirrored the scene in Tucson, Arizona, years earlier when a man attacked a crowd in a grocery store parking lot, killing six and injuring more than a dozen others, including former Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

    The day Scalise was shot, The New York Times published an editorial about the connection between rising gun violence and politics. "The link to political incitement was clear," The Times wrote, tying the actions of the Tucson shooter to a Facebook post by Palin.

    In it, a map showed 20 congressional districts, all represented by Democrats, underneath stylized crosshairs. They were 20 seats that Palin's political action committee hoped to win back in the 2010 midterm elections.

    But the shooter's fixation with Giffords had started years earlier, according to people who knew him. And The New York Times issued a correction, writing: "In fact, no such link was established."

    Palin, the former governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, sued The Times for defamation. In court filings, Palin's attorneys wrote: "The Times should be held accountable for publishing a statement about her that it knew to be false."

    And that is one of the central questions of this case: Did The Times act with actual malice? That's the precedent established by the Supreme Court in the landmark 1964 case New York Times vs. Sullivan. Public figures like Palin must prove the statement was made with actual malice, the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

    Palin, who said she could testify on Monday, says the standard does apply and that the nearly 60-year-old precedent needs updating. She alleges former Times editorial editor James Bennet, who inserted the disputed paragraph drawing the link, knew it was untrue, citing past coverage by The Times.

    Her lawyers will argue that Bennet, whose brother is a Democratic senator from Colorado, wanted to hurt Palin politically. The Times says the mistake was innocent and quickly corrected.

    Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: We are going to take a strong look at our country's libel laws.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    But perceived media bias has become a rallying cry for Republican politicians. Former President Trump spoke regularly about wanting to crack down on media protections.

  • Donald Trump:

    Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace, and do not represent American values or American fairness.

  • Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin:

    I can't talk about the case. Blame that on my attorneys.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And now, after Palin's positive COVID test delayed the trial for more than a week, attorneys for her and The New York Times will begin arguments in this case that could test the limits of the First Amendment.

    And to help us understand the stakes for journalists and the First Amendment, I'm joined by Bruce Brown. He's the Executive Director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which helps provide legal resources to reporters.

    It's good to have you with us.

    And tell us more about the standard that Sarah Palin's team needs to meet in order to be successful.

    Bruce Brown, Executive Director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: Well, thank you for having me.

    And the actual malice standard that you just referred to in the clip is really the core protection for journalists in U.S. constitutional law. It's a requirement that a libel plaintiff who is a public official or a public figure can only prevail in a case against a news organization if he or she can show, essentially, that the journalist published a knowing falsehood or an intentional lie.

    And it is a much more stringent standard than a mere negligence standard. And it's essential for the protection of journalism in this country that, at a time when we are focused on the role that accountability journalism and investigative reporting plays in keeping people informed, that we have to have a standard that allows journalists some room, essentially, to make an honest mistake.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And The Times notes it hasn't lost a defamation case in some 50 years because of the precedent outlined in that 1964 ruling.

    Give us a sense of why that precedent is seen as being so important to protecting press freedoms.

  • Bruce Brown:

    In the pre-New York Times world, where you simply had, as I mentioned, negligence, it's the same standard in a slip-and-fall case, there was a real risk that an inadvertent error could bankrupt a news organization.

    And at a time when we're all relying on journalism more than ever to keep us informed and help us make decisions in our lives, we have to have that kind of robust press.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    What will you be watching for as this case unfolds?

  • Bruce Brown:

    Well, like any trial, it's going to have a lot of ups and downs. And the plaintiff will come.

    And she's got a story to tell, and she's going to try to show that the news organization came to this editorial with a preconceived idea of what it was going to say. And The New York Times will defend itself by saying all of that is contrary to what happened, that the evidence shows that the journalists at the paper did their level best to get everything right, that there was a pressing news cycle that day, and a sitting member of Congress had been shot on a baseball field.

    And, at the end of a long day, an honest mistake was made, and they promptly corrected it. And I would say that it's important to note that the vast majority of plaintiffs who are able to overcome this daunting bar of actual malice at trial and prevail with a judgment find that, on appeal, their cases are overturned.

    And so, while we're beginning the trial phase right now, there could be a long road ahead still for this case.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Given the ways in which politicians and public figures are increasingly attacking the press for coverage that they may not like, do you expect that we will see more cases like this moving forward?

  • Bruce Brown:

    There's no doubt that there is an uptick of these kinds of cases right now.

    But I would remind people that we have seen this before in American libel law. President Nixon's good friend Bebe Rebozo was a libel plaintiff. Senator Goldwater was a libel plaintiff. Sid Blumenthal, the Clinton — the top Clinton aide, was a libel plaintiff.

    So, we have had other eras in which political people have gone to court and tried to use libel law. But I think it's very important also to pull back and recognize that Times v. Sullivan has survived these different challenges.

    And Justice Brennan wrote that, if we are to have popular sovereignty in this country, then a world in which government officials are protected from libel suits when they are sued in their official capacity must be mirrored with a world in which speakers themselves, the citizens, the people, are also protected from libel suits.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Bruce Brown is executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

    Appreciate your time this evening.

  • Bruce Brown:

    Thank you for having me.

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