The New York Times, Represented by Ballard Spahr, Prevails in Defamation Suit Brought by Sarah Palin
With trial counsel from Ballard Spahr, The New York Times has prevailed in a libel suit by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in a high-stakes case closely watched by the press, politicians, and the public.
The jury ruled on February 14 that The Times was not liable for a 2017 editorial that linked Palin’s political rhetoric to a mass shooting.
The jury’s decision in Sarah Palin v. The New York Times Company came a day after the judge overseeing the trial announced that he would dismiss the suit even if the jury came back with a verdict for Ms. Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate. Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled Monday—in response to a motion filed by Ballard Spahr lawyers on behalf of The Times, and outside the jury’s presence—that Ms. Palin’s legal team had failed to meet the high legal standard needed to prove that the newspaper acted with actual malice when it published the 2017 editorial.
In making his ruling, Judge Rakoff granted The Times’ Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law, argued earlier this week by Ballard Spahr Partner Jay Ward Brown of the firm’s Media and Entertainment Law Group. Partner David L. Axelrod of the firm’s Litigation Department served as lead trial counsel for The Times. The Ballard Spahr team also included Partner Thomas B. Sullivan, Senior Counsel Celeste Phillips, Associates Jacquelyn N. Schell and Leslie Minora, paralegals Scott E. Bailey and Ryan R. Relyea, Court Liaison Coordinator Gianni V. DiMezza, and Lisa Appel, a practice support staff member in the firm’s New York office.
The Times editorial originally asserted a link between Ms. Palin’s political rhetoric and a 2011 shooting near Tucson, Arizona, which left six people dead and 14 wounded, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, then a Democratic member of Congress. The Times published the editorial in the aftermath of a 2017 shooting in Virginia in which a shooter targeting Republican congressmen injured several people, including Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana. The Times published a correction within hours of publishing the editorial.
The Ballard Spahr team had obtained prior rulings disqualifying Ms. Palin’s damages expert and precluding punitive damages. Following his ruling yesterday, Judge Rakoff allowed the jury to continue its deliberations and render a verdict.
The case drew wide interest as a major test for First Amendment freedom of the press and initially was seen as a potential vehicle to upend the longstanding defamation standard established in the landmark Supreme Court case The New York Times Company v. Sullivan. That case established that a public figure such as Ms. Palin must prove that a news organization acted with “actual malice” in publishing false information, meaning it displayed a reckless disregard for the truth or knew it was false.
However, in a ruling granting a motion by The Times prior to trial, Judge Rakoff held that New York’s newly amended Anti-SLAPP statute, which requires as a matter of state law that a plaintiff such as Ms. Palin prove actual malice, applied to the case. This ruling, if upheld on appeal, would mean the case could not be a vehicle for challenging Sullivan.
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