Palin v. The New York Times, No. 17-04853.
Judgment for defendant entered February 15, 2022.
Teleconference scheduled for February 23 at 4:00 p.m. Public access at 888-363-4735 Access Code 1086415
In issue: In 2017, Congressman Steve Scalise was shot while practicing with colleagues for an annual Congressional baseball game, causing news media to echo concerns about gun violence that arose in 2011 when Arizona Senator Gabrielle Giffords sustained a gunshot wound to the head in a supermarket parking lot.
The New York Times opined that a perceived escalation of gun violence was traceable, in the Giffords case, of incitement induced by a campaign document produced by Governor Palin which featured drawings of gun sight cross hairs on a map to indicate campaign targets.
The New York Times corrected itself but this did not, in Palin’s view, suffice to relieve the publication of liability for defamation.
While jurors were deliberating whether The New York Times ought to respond in damages to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for its publication of an admittedly inaccurate, promptly removed, statement in an opinion piece, the court granted judgment in favor of The New York Times.
Although jurors had been cautioned against accessing media while deliberating, jurors reported that they learned of the entry of judgment through telephone notifications received prior to the jurors’ verdict for the New York Times.
The court was of the mind that entry of judgment for The New York Times could provide efficiencies after appeal: If the jurors found in favor of plaintiff Palin, and the Second Circuit reversed the trial court, judgment for Palin in accordance with the juror’s findings could be entered, obviating the need for another trial.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Civil procedure thumbnail. Judges may dismiss cases before trial, after trial, and after jury determinations in the court’s discretion if the court is of the view that a litigant cannot and, if after trial, has not, as a matter of law, established a case. Rule 50, Fed.R.Civ.P. Entry of judgment as a matter of law in accordance with Rule 50 modernizes the common law judgment non obstante verdicto (judgment notwithstanding the verdict), permitting courts the flexibility of entering judgment at almost any time.
The court has augmented the record to include statements to the jurors about avoiding media as well as cases relied on by the parties concerning the motion for judgment by the court, and has invited the parties to discuss any issues presented by the court’s and the jurors’ conclusions by telephone conference.
By entering judgment for the New York Times, the court indicated that the former governor had not produced evidence meeting the heightened standard for defamation of public figures announced more than a half-century ago in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).
Law thumbnail. To prevail in a defamation claim, a public figure must prove that the publication of a defamatory statement was done with “actual malice”, defined as knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard of whether the statement was false or not. “Actual malice” does not mean subjective ill will but refers to publishing, as stated, with knowledge that a statement is false or with reckless disregard — more than negligence — with respect to truth or falsity.
This rarely met standard has provided insulation for publishers which some, including two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, now sense merits revisiting. Berisha v. Lawson, No. 20-1063, 594 U.S. ____ (2021) (Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, writing separately, dissent from denial of certiorari).
At this writing there is no opinion concerning the final judgment on the docket for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and it is not known whether the court will issue one.
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