David Axelrod Recognized as Law360 'MVP of the Year' for Verdict Upholding Crucial Tenet of Media Law
David L. Axelrod, a first-chair trial lawyer who led Ballard Spahr’s successful defense of The New York Times in a high-profile defamation trial earlier this year, has been named “MVP of the Year” for Media and Entertainment Law by leading legal news service Law360.
Mr. Axelrod served as lead trial lawyer for The Times in defending a libel claim by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who sued over an editorial, corrected within 12 hours, that she alleged linked an ad issued by her PAC to a mass shooting. At stake was the critical First Amendment protection for journalists established in the landmark 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan. That unanimous Supreme Court decision established the “actual malice” standard, holding that public figures should not be permitted to use libel suits to punish unintentional errors by news organizations. First Amendment advocates worried that a Palin victory could lead to an avalanche of defamation lawsuits against media entities and embolden critics of Sullivan, threatening nearly 60 years of broad legal protection for journalists.
But in February 2022, after a 10-day trial, the judge overseeing the case granted Ballard Spahr’s Rule 50 motion and dismissed the case, ruling that Palin’s legal team failed to meet the high standard needed to prove actual malice. The judge, however, allowed the jury to continue deliberating and the next day, the jury came back in favor of The Times, too.
“We couldn’t be more proud of Dave and the team who defended The New York Times, and all of the work done by our Media and Entertainment Law Group to protect the rights of journalists,” said Jason A. Leckerman, Chair of Ballard Spahr’s more than 250-lawyer Litigation Department. “This was a victory not only for our client, but also for foundational principles of freedom of the press.”
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