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Sarah Palin sued the paper over an editorial suggesting her ad motivated a mass shooter.
Sarah Palin sued the paper over an editorial suggesting her ad motivated a mass shooter.

Image: Kathleen Gray/Detroit Free Press/TNS via Getty Images

A federal judge threw out Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the New York Times on Tuesday in a decision praised by journalists and free press advocates.

The former vice presidential candidate had sued the paper over a recent editorial tying one of her campaign group’s ads to an Arizona shooting in 2011 that killed six and severely injured then-congresswoman Gabby Giffords.  

But the judge said the Times‘ prompt correction and apology helped make clear the mistake wasn’t made maliciously, a legal prerequisite for most defamation cases against public figures.

“Nowhere is political journalism so free, so robust, or perhaps so rowdy as in the United States,” Judge Jed Rakoff wrote in his opinion. “In the exercise of that freedom, mistakes will be made, some of which will be hurtful to others.”

The New York Times was happy with the outcome.

“Judge Rakoff’s opinion is an important reminder of the country’s deep commitment to a free press and the important role that journalism plays in our democracy,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We regret the errors we made in the editorial. But we were pleased to see that the court acknowledged the importance of the prompt correction we made once we learned of the mistakes.”

Many experts agreed beforehand that Palin’s legal crusade had little chance of clearing the country’s comparatively high bar for press complaints from people considered newsworthy.

But at a time when judges have signaled a seeming willingness to rethink America’s strict press freedom protections, a president has vowed to tighten libel laws, and media lawsuits from strong-arming billionaires are piling up, nothing can be taken for granted. 

The Times editorial in question was published in the wake of a politically motivated shooting at a Virginia baseball field this June that left Lousiana Rep. Steve Scalise in critical condition. 

In an attempt to draw a parallel with the Giffords shooting, the paper’s editorial board suggested that an ad from Palin’s political action committee motivated Giffords’ would-be assassin. The ad featured a map with rifle-scope crosshairs superimposed on vulnerable electoral districts, though not on any image of Giffords herself as the Times incorrectly implied.

That theory was widely debunked at the time, and the editorial caught deserved flak from across the political spectrum. The offending sentences were quickly removed with an appended correction, and the Times apologized to its readers but neglected to contact Palin directly, according to the court proceedings.

Palin said the fix wasn’t enough. She sued later that month, alleging that the paper’s editors knew what they said was wrong and published it anyway. 

Palin’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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