In the long-running defamation case brought by Sarah Palin against the New York Times (see our prior coverage here), Judge Rakoff issued an opinion yesterday explaining his ruling from the bench granting judgment as a matter of law to the Times. The ruling was announced orally to counsel at the close of trial, before the jury returned its verdict. The jury subsequently ruled in the Times’ favor, as well.
The central issue in the case was whether the Times acted with “actual malice” when it issued an editorial erroneously suggesting that the actions of Palin’s political action committee – using “stylized cross hairs” over the districts of several members of Congress in online materials – was responsible for the “political incitement” of Jared Lee Loughner, who killed six people and wounded many others, including Representative Gabby Giffords, in a 2011 mass shooting.
Judge Rakoff found that the author, James Bennet, did not act with actual malice because, among other things, he was so quick to direct that the matter be corrected the morning after the editorial was published:
Bennet instructed [colleagues] to “get to the bottom of [the factual question] as quickly as possible … and correct the piece if needed.” PX-191. Later that morning, in a text message . . . Bennet reiterated that he “need[ed] … a rock-solid version” of the correction, which he did not “want to soften if … we don’t need to — if there was no link we should say so.” DX-46 at 2.
The Court concludes that these directives are irreconcilable with the suggestion that Bennet purposefully or recklessly published false information. Had he known or suspected the information was false before publication, he likely would have been defensive, avoided issuing a correction to the Editorial, or tried to minimize the correction’s confession of error
Certain jurors had received “push notifications” on their phones about Judge Rakoff’s ruling before they issued their verdict, but Judge Rakoff concluded that the notifications did not make a difference:
The jurors . . . insisted to the Court’s law clerk that the information played no role whatsoever in their deliberations and did not affect the outcome. While some outsiders, totally unfamiliar with the exceptional jury in this case, have been quick to assume otherwise, the Court knows of no reason why the highly conscientious citizens who served as jurors in this case would be so firm that they were unaffected by this information unless it were true. The Court is thus left with the definite conviction that the information did not remotely affect the ultimate verdict.
Judge Rakoff added that his conclusion “reflected [the Court’s] duty to ensure that public figure libel actions with constitutionally inadequate evidence do not erroneously result in the imposition of liability that might chill protected speech.”