The Times they are not a-changin’: awkward closing of Palin libel suit fails to provide path forward for standards governing publication of false statements about public figures

 

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.

Recent case materials:

Order February 16, 2022

Order to Supplement Record February 16, 2022

Final Judgment February 15, 2022

Earlier case materials:

Palin v. New York Times (2nd Cir.) August 6, 2019

Palin v. New York Times, Opinion S.D.N.Y. August 29, 2017

Supreme Court Opinions:

Berisha v. Lawson, No. 20-1063, 594 U.S.___ (2021)

New York Times Company v Sullivan 376 US 254 11 L Ed 2d 686 84 S Ct 710 95 ALR2d 1412 1964

The New York Times, March 10, 1964

 

 

 

 

From Press Immunity to Impunity: Dissenting Senior U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for D.C. Circuit Suggests Overruling New York Times v. Sullivan

Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, et al., No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 2021.

Defendants Global Witness Publishing and Global Witness (“Global Witness”) published an investigation into bonuses paid to plaintiffs as members of a government entity engaged in negotiating to conclusion an oil lease of unprecedented significance for Liberia. Plaintiffs sued Global Witness for libel as Global Witness’ report on Liberian corruption intimated that the bonuses were bribes.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed anti-Slapp proceedings, as federal courts are not bound by the District of Columbia Anti-Slapp Act. This conclusion was affirmed on appeal.

Similarly, the trial court’s dismissal of the libel action because the publication was subject to First Amendment protections. Plaintiffs assertions concerning ‘actual malice’ were without foundation in law, the court found. This conclusion, also affirmed on appeal, generated significant debate among the panelists about the meaning and future of the “actual malice” standard for libel actions concerning public figures, as established in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

New York Times v. Sullivan insulated the press from suit for defamation for publication or broadcast of arguably defamatory material unless the publication was made with “actual malice,” either a knowledge that the published information was false or a reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Id. Subsequent to the decision, it has been noted that meeting the “actual malice” standard is difficult, to say the least.

The present Global Witness affirmation of dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims prompted Senior Circuit Judge Silberman to dissent with some force, taking aim not only at currents in jurisprudence but also offering concerns about the consolidation of power in the media and in the technological giants engaging in distribution and curation of online publications.

The “actual malice” standard is unworkable and in this case has been erroneously interpreted, Judge Silberman declared, causing a rift between the D.C. Circuit and the Second Circuit. The standard for dismissal is “whether a complaint is plausible, not whether it is less plausible than another alternative explanation,” quoting Palin v. New York Times, 940 F.3d 804, 815 (2nd Cir. 2019). Dissent, Slip. op. at 15.

More significantly, New York Times v. Sullivan, Judge Silberman offered, echoing the views of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, was a policy decision presented as interpretation of the Constitution. While it can be argued that the decision was necessary to protect the press from an avalanche of libel suits intended to discourage coverage of civil rights activities, the opinion itself is not jurisprudentially sound, as it is lacking in grounding in the facts and as it departs from centuries of common law. Id.

The Silberman dissent brooks activist judges no mercy. By “constitutionalizing” policy, the Supreme Court has embraced the standards of communist regimes. Once a principle is established, it will not be willingly relinquished. Dissent, Slip. Op. a 16. If comparing the Supreme Court’s actions to those of regimes antithetical to United States’ freedoms were not enough, Judge Silberman next ventured into the theological realm, remarking that an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court had scolded him for a perceived deficiency in regard for the Court. This chiding, Judge Silberman wrote, caused him to sense that the Court is more concerned with “maintaining a veneer of infallibility” than in correcting errors, no matter how far afield the Court had wandered or stepped on the toes of correlative branches. Id.

However much the New York Times v. Sullivan decision sought to promote the freedom of the press at the time the case was decided, today there is great concern, in Judge SIlberman’s mind, about the consolidation of media within one political point of view. Where it was once feared that press consolidation would induce bland homogeneity, that is hardly the case currently, he has observed, as hasty publication of extreme material, with the assurance no liability will ensue, causes no small amount of harm for which, for public figures, there is likely no redress.

When press powers are aligned with technological giants that curate material in line with the political iew of the press, the threat of suppression of ideas is, in Judge Silberman’s view, too real to overlook. While private technological companies are not bound by the First Amendment, suppression of disfavored views strikes the judge as “un-American.” Dissent, Slip. Op. at 22. Where history instructs that control of communication is an essential first step in establishing authoritarian control, the need to consider these issues is pressing indeed, Judge Silberman has written. Dissent, Slip. Op. at 23.

JustLawful Two Cents’ Worth: JustLawful shares the concerns expressed about media “hive mind” and about the capacity of online gatekeepers to work great mischief. JustLawful would never question the power and potency of the manner in which New York Times v. Sullivan has, rightly or not, accorded the press an immunity ordinarily reserved for the sovereign. Yet JustLawful questions whether overruling New York Times v. Sullivan would cause the press to be any more open to divergent thought. Moreover, if New York Times v. Sullivan were overruled with the view in mind to cause openness to divergence of thought, would that not be as much a policy decision as Judge Silberman’s criticism suggests the case has always been?

Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, Inc. and Global Witness, No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 2021.