Federal judge Jed S. Rakoff has dismissed Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against The New York Times, ruling that she had failed to show that the Times defamed her in its June editorial stating that she was responsible in part for the Tucson shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others by the deranged Jared Loughner. Rakoff’s ruling argued that the statements in the Times editorial were ambiguous (where have I heard this before?), and thus did not qualify as “provably false,” resulting in insufficient evidence that the Times had written the story with “actual malice.”
“[I]f political journalism is to achieve its constitutionally endorsed role of challenging the powerful, legal redress by a public figure must be limited to those cases where the public figure has a plausible factual basis for complaining that the mistake was made maliciously, that is, with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard of its falsity,” Rakoff wrote.
Right. Except that to write what it did, the New York Times Editors had to be unaware of what the Times itself had reported regarding Palin’s alleged culpability for the shooting. The Times reported, in great detail at the time, that the claim that Palin’s website had inspired Loughner was completely without merit.
A newspaper’s editors impugning a public figure by blaming her for multiple murders and the attempted assassination of a Congresswoman without checking its own reporting doesn’t qualify as “reckless disregard of its falsity”? If that isn’t reckless disregard, what is?
Actual malice, the standard that Palin, as a public figure, needed to show for a newspaper like the Times to be found liable for defaming her, demands that they did so “with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard of its falsity.” This is the result of the famous 1964 Supreme Court case in involving the Times.
It seems clear to me that Judge Rakoff doesn’t have the fortitude to open the Constitutional can of worms that would result if he found for Palin, though she had a strong case. The Times’s anti-conservative, anti-Republican bias has edged into irrationality, and this episode was a prime example. It, like most of its fellow news sources, is increasingly unprofessional, biased, careless and incompetent. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan was announced at a time when the news media was far more trustworthy, and SCOTUS girding its First Amendment privileges with a high bar for defamation suits was prudent and wise. Now the news media is abusing its special status, and endangering Freedom of the Press through that abuse.
I think Rakoff made a disingenuous ruling, not to save the Times, but to protect that freedom from the furious assault that he knew would follow once a figure like Palin won a defamation suit against the New York Times. Of course, maybe he just hates Palin as much as the Times does; I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Clarence Darrow wrote that “In order to have enough freedom, it is necessary that we have too much.” This is a perfect example of why he was correct. Even though it is currently in the control of people unworthy of it, freedom of the press is a core part of the foundation of our democracy. This is no time to weaken it, when the press itself is doing so by undermining the public’s support.
The Rakoff ruling is a dishonest decision, but a necessary one. Ann Althouse concludes her commentary on the case by ruefully writing,
Freedom of speech. It gives even the NYT the right to be sloppy and embarrassing in a completely politically slanted way.
How will you exercise your freedom today?