Palin's libel case proves shoddy journalism is legal, but it shouldn't be the norm
© Getty Images

A federal judge in New York recently tossed the libel lawsuit filed by Sarah Palin against the New York Times. The decision was not a surprise. It was the correct decision. The Times, however, should not be doing a victory dance in the end zone. The correct legal result doesn’t erase what was lousy journalism and the cheap shot the Times surely intended to take at Palin.

Palin filed the lawsuit in response to a Times editorial in June. That editorial was published in reaction to the Alexandria shooting incident in which Congressman Steve Scalise was injured. The Times drew a parallel between that incident and the 2011 attack in Arizona in which a gunman killed six people and severely wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

The clumsy editorial read, in part, “Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.” That description was incorrect in that the cross hairs were over certain electoral districts, not named politicians. The Times later corrected the editorial, acknowledging there was no evidence to connect Palin to inciting the Arizona gunman. No explanation was made, however, for why the Times stretched so far to bring Palin into the discussion of the Virginia shooting in the first place.


In dismissing the libel suit, Judge Jed Rakoff said the Palin attorneys had not shown the Times acted with “actual malice,” the standard needed for public figures to win a libel suit. The judge acknowledged that journalistic mistakes will be made in a political journalism environment “so free, so robust, or perhaps so rowdy as in the United States.”


The Times’ poor performance in this case harms a journalism industry that continues to suffer from slumping credibility polls. It further fuels a notion that the press acts carelessly and that political motivations disrupt fair treatment of controversial subjects. This was an avoidable blunder. The Times is lucky that the First Amendment was designed to protect even shoddy and irresponsible journalism. As constitutional framer James Madison once wrote in defending the need for a widely supported free press, “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press.”

No wonder one in three Americans believes the press has too much freedom to act as it wants. That was the finding of last year’s First Amendment survey, conducted by the Newseum Institute. No wonder crowds delight when Trump attacks the journalism industry and calls for changing libel laws, which, by the way, would be a terrible idea and could not withstand constitutional testing. 

The New York Times is an important news organization for the nation. It has a major role in setting the nation’s news agenda in that its news decisions influence the news judgments of other major news outlets, including the major broadcast networks. With this clout comes enormous responsibility for accurate content and professional tone.

Although Palin filed the lawsuit, the implications are broader. Palin has been a political lightning rod in the past, but is now largely off the stage. Still, she remains a public figure and is open to media commentary. She also has plenty of avenues to defend her image in public, which she has used. Ultimately, this isn’t about Palin, it is about the performance of the Times.

The Times celebrated the ruling in a statement, “Judge Rakoff’s opinion is an important reminder of the country’s deep commitment to a free press and the important role that journalism plays in our democracy.” Yes, Judge Rakoff recognizes the important role of a free press. The issue is whether the Times recognizes the responsibility that comes with that freedom. The Times’ statement might suggest otherwise in that it referred to the whole flap as just “an honest mistake.”

In his second inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson blasted what he called “the artillery of the press” and accused it of “demoralizing licentiousness.” He called on the citizenry to punish the offending press with “public indignation.” He warned that press abuses “lessen its usefulness” and “sap its safety.”

Maintaining a useful press demands a media industry that lives up to its First Amendment privileges. The New York Times is too important to sap the safety of the free press by getting sued over unnecessary mistakes in editorials.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.