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Volokh Conspiracy

Sarah Palin's Libel Case Against New York Times Can Go Forward

So holds a Second Circuit panel this morning.


The opinion is here; the court concluded that Palin had adequately alleged "actual malice"—a misleading term meaning that the New York Times editor responsible for the article over which she was suing knew it was false or likely to be false—and the district judge therefore erred in dismissing the case. (This of course doesn't show that Palin has proved such knowledge, only that she should be offered a chance to prove it.)

Here are the facts that led to the lawsuit:

On January 8, 2011, Jared Loughner opened fire at a political rally for Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona ("the Loughner shooting"), killing six people and injuring thirteen others. Representative Giffords was seriously wounded in the attack.

Shortly before the tragic attack, Sarah Palin's political action committee ("SarahPAC") had circulated a map that superimposed the image of a crosshairs target over certain Democratic congressional districts (evoking, in the view of many, images of violence). Giffords' district was among those targeted by the SarahPAC crosshairs map. The image had been publicized during the earlier political controversy surrounding the Affordable Care Act, but in the wake of the Loughner shooting, some speculated that the shooting was connected to the crosshairs map. No evidence ever emerged to establish that link; in fact, the criminal investigation of Loughner indicated that his animosity toward Representative Giffords had arisen before SarahPAC published the map.

Six years later, on June 14, 2017, another political shooting occurred when James Hodgkinson opened fire in Alexandria, Virginia at a practice for a congressional baseball game. He seriously injured four people, including Republican Congressman Steve Scalise ("the Hodgkinson shooting"). That same evening, the Times, under the Editorial Board's byline, published an editorial entitled "America's Lethal Politics" ("the editorial") in response to the shooting.

The editorial argued that these two political shootings evidenced the "vicious" nature of American politics. Reflecting on the Loughner shooting and the SarahPAC crosshairs map, the editorial claimed that the "link to political incitement was clear," and noted that Palin's political action committee had "circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs," suggesting that the  congressmembers themselves had been pictured on the map.2 In the next paragraph, the editorial referenced the Hodgkinson shooting that had happened that day: "Though there's no sign of incitement as direct as in the Giffords attack, liberals should of course hold themselves to the same standard of decency that they ask of the right."

The Times faced an immediate backlash for publishing the editorial. Within a day, it had changed the editorial and issued a correction. The Times removed the two phrases suggesting a link between Palin and the Loughner shooting. Added to the editorial was a correction that read: "An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that a link existed between political incitement and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established." The Times also clarified that the SarahPAC map had overlaid crosshairs on Democratic congressional districts, not the representatives themselves.

Twelve days after the editorial was published Palin sued the Times in federal court….

The Times moved to dismiss the case, and the district judge held an evidentiary hearing to decide whether the allegations of "actual malice" against the Times were plausible; the judge concluded that the allegations weren't plausible, based on the testimony of "James Bennet, the editorial page editor at the Times and the author of the editorial":

Bennet was the hearing's only witness. Bennet explained  at the hearing that his reference to Palin in the editorial was intended to make a rhetorical point about the present atmosphere of political anger. He also recounted the editorial's research and publication process and answered inquiries about his prior knowledge of the Loughner shooting six years earlier and any connection to Palin. Bennet testified that he was unaware of any of the earlier articles published by the Times, or by The Atlantic (where he had previously been the editor‐in‐chief), that indicated that no connection between Palin or her political action committee and Loughner had ever been established. In addition to answering questions from the Times' counsel, Bennet responded to questions by Palin's counsel and the district judge.

No, said the court of appeals: Among other things, the district judge's decision "relied on credibility determinations not permissible at any stage before trial." And the court of appeals held that Palin's proposed amended complaint sufficiently alleged knowledge of falsity or likely falsity on Bennet's part:

The [Complaint] alleges that, from 2006 to 2016, Bennet was the editor‐in‐chief of The Atlantic, where "he was responsible for the content of, reviewed, edited and approved the publication of numerous articles confirming there was no link between Mrs. Palin and Loughner's shooting." The complaint references several articles about the Loughner shooting published by The Atlantic during Bennet's tenure, the most notable of which is entitled "Ten Days That Defined 2011." The part of that article discussing the Loughner shooting reads: "… the bad thing to come out of this already terrible story was a round of blame hurling, with people rushing to point at Sarah Palin's infamous target map …. In truth, Loughner is clinically insane and this was not really about politics at all."

At the hearing, Bennet stated that he could not recall reading those articles, and even if he had read them, he did not have them in mind when he published the editorial. The district court, in rejecting Palin's theory as implausible, credited this testimony as truthful when it found that Bennet's failure to read the articles was simply a research failure that did not rise to the level of actual malice.

By crediting Bennet's testimony, the district court rejected a permissible inference from the articles: that one who had risen to editor‐in‐chief at The Atlantic knew their content and thus that there was no connection between Palin and the Loughner shooting. That Palin's complaint sufficiently alleges that Bennet's opportunity to  know the journalistic consensus that the connection was lacking gives rise to the inference that he actually did know.

The [Complaint] also includes allegations suggesting that Bennet in particular was more likely than the average editor‐in‐chief to know the truth about the Loughner shooting because he had reason to be personally hostile toward Palin, her political party, and her pro‐gun stance. Bennet's brother, a Democrat, had served as a United States Senator for Colorado since 2009. In 2010, Senator Bennet was endorsed by two House members whose districts had been targeted by the SarahPAC map. Two days before the Loughner shooting, a man threatened to open fire on Senator Bennet's offices, and thereafter both Bennet brothers became "outspoken advocate[s] for gun control." Also, during the 2016 election, Palin endorsed Senator Bennet's  opponent  and  Representative  Giffords  endorsed Senator Bennet.

The district court gave no weight to these allegations, finding that political opposition did not rise to the level of actual malice. We agree with the district court that political opposition alone does not constitute actual malice, but we conclude that these allegations could indicate  more  than  sheer  political  bias—they  arguably  show that Bennet  had  a  personal  connection  to  a  potential  shooting  that animated  his  hostility  to  pro‐gun  positions  at  the  time  of  the Loughner shooting in 2011. Palin's allegations are relevant to the credibility of Bennet's testimony that he was unaware of facts  published on his watch relating to the Loughner shooting and that he made a mistake when he connected Palin to the that shooting. Palin's allegations present a plausible inference that Bennet's claim of memory loss is untrue.

At a minimum, these allegations give rise to a plausible inference that Bennet was reckless when he published the editorial without reacquainting himself with the contrary articles published in The  Atlantic  six  years  earlier.  And  that  plausible  inference  of recklessness is strengthened when added to Palin's allegations that Bennet had reason to be personally biased against Palin and pro‐gun positions in general. When properly viewed in the plaintiff's favor, a reasonable factfinder could conclude this amounted to more than a mistake due to a research failure.

Second, the PAC also alleges that certain aspects of the drafting and publication process of the editorial at The New York Times permits an inference of actual malice. Elizabeth Williamson, the editorial writer who drafted the initial version of the editorial, had hyperlinked in her draft an article entitled "Sarah Palin's 'Crosshairs' Ad Dominates Gabrielle Giffords Debate." The article stated, contrary to the claim in the published editorial, that "[n]o connection" was made between the SarahPAC map and Loughner. The link was also included in the final version of the editorial, a version that Bennet essentially rewrote. The Times argues that the hyperlink shows the absence of malice. But  the PAC alleges that, by including a hyperlink that contradicted the argument of his editorial, Bennet "willfully disregarded the truth."

The district court, siding with the Times, concluded that including the hyperlinked article was further evidence of simple mistake. After crediting Bennet's testimony that he did not read the hyperlinked article, the district judge concluded that a mistake was the only plausible explanation. But the inclusion of the hyperlinked article gives rise to more than one plausible inference, and any inference to be drawn from the inclusion of the hyperlinked article was for the jury—not the court. In any event, under these circumstances, it was arguably reckless for Bennet to hyperlink an article that he did not read.

Third, the district court concluded that the correction swiftly issued by the Times again demonstrated that the only plausible explanation for the erroneous statements was a mistake. Yet, it is also plausible that the correction was issued after a calculus that standing by the editorial was not worth the cost of the public backlash. Bennet could have published the editorial knowing—or recklessly disregarding—the falsity of the claim, and then decided later that the false allegation was not worth defending.

At bottom, it is plain from the record that the district court found Bennet a credible witness, and that the district court's crediting his testimony impermissibly anchored the district court's own negative view of the plausibility of Palin's allegations.

The district court at one point stated that Bennet's "behavior is much more plausibly consistent with making an unintended mistake and then correcting it than with acting with actual malice." Perhaps so, but it is not the district court's province to dismiss a plausible complaint because it is not as plausible as the defendant's theory. The test  is  whether  the  complaint  is  plausible,  not  whether  it  is less plausible than an alternative explanation.

The jury may ultimately agree with the district court's conclusion that Bennet was  credible— but it is the jury that must decide. Therefore, at the pleading stage, we are satisfied that Palin has met her burden to plead facts giving rise to the plausible inference that Bennet published the allegedly defamatory editorial with actual malice. We emphasize that actual malice does not mean maliciousness or ill will; it simply means the statement was "made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." Here, given the facts alleged, the assertion that Bennet knew the statement was false, or acted with reckless disregard as to whether the statement was false, is plausible.

The case can now go forward. Thanks to Alan Kabat for the pointer.