The Court emphasized that the need to set forth a plausible claim for relief makes particular sense in public figure defamation cases because it helps ensure that those exercising their First Amendment rights will not be unduly burdened with expensive and baseless litigation.

In a decision addressing what constitutes malice for determining whether a public figure has been defamed, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the New York Times, in which Palin claimed that a Times editorial falsely linked her to a mass shooting. In Palin v. The New York Times Company, 17-cv-4853 (JSR) (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 29, 2017), Judge Jed Rakoff addressed a number of key considerations that can arise from editorials on hot-button political stories.

On June 14, 2017, a gunman opened fire on various Republican members of Congress and aides practicing for a charity baseball game, wounding several. Later that day, the Times ran an editorial discussing the attack as a result of America’s vicious political climate. The editorial referenced a 2011 incident in Arizona in which Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on a crowd, killing six people and severely wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The editorial referenced a map that Sarah Palin’s political action committee (SarahPAC) had circulated before the 2011 incident, which the editorial said showed “targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.” (In fact, the map put the cross hairs on the districts themselves, not the names or pictures of the politicians.) The editorial also said that “there’s no sign of incitement [in the 2017 shooting] as direct as in the Giffords attack…” Palin promptly sued the Times for defamation, and the Times moved to dismiss.

Judge Rakoff found the complaint on its face to be deficient, but rather than dismiss the claim outright, he took the unusual step of holding an evidentiary hearing to determine who actually made the allegedly defamatory statements and to ascertain additional facts to provide the Court context to assess whether the allegations in Palin’s complaint stated a plausible claim for relief.

Initially, the Court found that the statements about incitement of the 2011 shooting were sufficiently “of and concerning” Palin and were sufficiently capable of being proven false to support her defamation claim. However, the Court dismissed the lawsuit because it found that, even when supplemented by the additional facts revealed at the evidentiary hearing, the allegations in Palin’s complaint did not set forth a plausible basis for claiming that the statements in the Times’ editorial were made with actual malice–that is, with actual knowledge of or reckless disregard for the falsity of those statements–as is required to establish a defamation claim against a public figure. The Court emphasized that the need to set forth a plausible claim for relief makes particular sense in public figure defamation cases because it helps ensure that those exercising their First Amendment rights will not be unduly burdened with expensive and baseless litigation.

The Court’s finding rested on several key points. First, Judge Rakoff pointed out that Palin’s complaint was defective because, rather than identify an individual who had the required knowledge and intent to support actual malice, she attributed this knowledge to the Times in general (the editorial was signed by “The Editorial Board”). Such collective knowledge allegations, the Court held, were not sufficient. At the evidentiary hearing, it was established that the individual author was the Times’ editorial page editor.

Nevertheless, the Court found there were not sufficient allegations as to the knowledge and intent of the editorial page editor to support a finding of actual malice based on clear and convincing evidence–the standard in a public figure defamation claim.

Second, Palin sought to show malice based on several clearly erroneous statements in the original editorial, as demonstrated by corrections to the original editorial run by the Times both online and in print about the link between incitement of the 2011 shooting and SarahPAC’s map. The Court found these corrections were “much more plausibly consistent with making an unintended mistake and correcting it than with acting with actual malice.”

Judge Rakoff also was not persuaded by Palin’s argument that the Times was hostile to her and attacked her in order to attract readership. Judge Rakoff wrote that “it goes without saying that the Times editorial board is not a fan of Mrs. Palin. But neither the fact of that opposition, nor the supposition that a sharp attack on a disfavored political figure will increase a publication’s readership, has ever been enough to prove actual malice.” Quoting the Fourth Circuit, the Court explained that “[d]efamation judgments do not exist to police [publications’] objectivity.” Reuber v. Food Chem. News, Inc., 925 F.2d 703, 716 (4th Cir. 1991). Nor was the Court persuaded by Palin’s argument that the editor had a long history of association with liberal publications and a brother in the Senate whose opponent Palin had endorsed, explaining: “If such political opposition counted as evidence of actual malice, the protections imposed by [the Supreme Court in New York Times v.] Sullivan and its progeny would swiftly become a nullity.”

Moreover, while the online version of the editorial contained a hyperlink to an article concluding that there was no proven link between the SarahPAC map’s circulation and the Loughner shooting–a conclusion at odds with the statement in the Times’ editorial–the Court found this, too, undercut the possibility of malice. Rather, the Court found, it showed that the Times in the limited time available to it did some research before publishing the piece. Further, Judge Rakoff said that the link to an article undercutting the conclusions in the Times’ editorial rendered actual malice “even more improbable.”

In essence, Judge Rakoff concluded, “What we have here is an editorial, written and rewritten rapidly in order to voice an opinion on an immediate event of importance, in which are included a few factual inaccuracies somewhat pertaining to Mrs. Palin that are very rapidly corrected. Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not.” In so deciding, Judge Rakoff affirmed long-standing First Amendment protections for the press when commenting on matters of clear public concern, even when those matters attract sharp–even vitriolic–opposing views.