Sarah Palin v. New York Times Spotlights Push to Loosen Libel Law

Many journalists and the lawyers who defend them brushed aside when Donald J. Trump called for scrapping laws that offer the news media broad protection from libel suits.

A libel case that begins Monday in Lower Manhattan shines a spotlight on the many ways that Mr. Trump's seemingly far-fetched wish may no longer be so unthinkable.

A lot has changed in the legal and political landscape since Ms.Palin filed her suit. It alleges that The Times defamed her with an editorial that wrongly implied a link between her political rhetoric and a mass shooting near Tucson, Arizona, in 2011.

The same day that the editorial was published, a man opened fire at a baseball field where Republican congressmen were practicing, injuring several people. The editorial asked if the Virginia shooting was evidence of how vicious American politics had become.

The editorial first argued that the link was clear between the Giffords shooting and the map that Ms.Palin's political action committee put out. The districts held by Ms. Giffords were displayed under stylized cross hairs. The Times said it had wrongly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the shooting.

Since the landmark 1964 Supreme Court decision in The New York Times Company v. Sullivan, those who argue that media outlets should pay a higher legal price when they make a mistake are more confident. To prove defamation, public officials had to show that the report was false and that those who produced it acted with malice, meaning they displayed a reckless disregard for the truth or knew it was false.

The larger constitutional issues will not be dealt with by the case being tried in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. The jury will consider testimony and evidence that is expected to offer a rare glimpse at how daily journalism is produced.

Most libel suits against The Times are dismissed before they reach a jury. Defending the First Amendment protections for the media, they acknowledged that a jury could decide if the evidence was strong.

The case will come down to whether the jury will follow the actual malice rules or if they will be swayed by the likes and impressions of the parties.

There are fundamental First Amendment issues that loom over the trial. The lawyers for Ms.Palin have made it clear that they want to see the courts rethink the legal latitude that media organizations have. The law considers an occasional mistake to be a result of a free press.

The bedrock precedent set by the Sullivan case has not kept up with the changing nature of news and public commentary, so some First Amendment scholars, politicians and judges have started to press their case more aggressively for the repeal. Two Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch, wrote last summer that the standard has evolved into an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods.

Some Republicans are using defamation allegations against journalists with an aggressiveness that media advocates say is without precedent, from the Trump campaign's suit against The Times in 2020 for a critical opinion piece to former Representative and Trump campaign advisor.

The error in the editorial was not a case of malice but a mistake made under a tight and routine production deadline that was corrected after it was pointed out.

It is a image.

The editorial page editor of The New York Times was James Bennet. He left the paper in 2020.

Lawyers who support the broad free speech protections that Sullivan and other legal precedents guarantee say that the risk to a free and impartial press is not only that it could be held liable for honest mistakes.

Press freedom advocates warn that if public figures are no longer required to meet a high legal bar for proving harm from an unflattering article, journalists will self-censor.

A law professor at the University of Utah who has documented the judiciary's increasingly dim said that they worry about the risk that public officials and other powerful figures can use threats of defamation suits to deter news gathering and suppress important conversations on matters of public concern. It is a trend that press freedom scholars find troubling.

Ms. Jones said that she and many other legal scholars thought that Mr. Trump was crazy to insist that libel laws be reopened. She regrets her indifference now. She said she is looking at the case as a test of how harshly a jury will judge media companies for their mistakes.

The suit was dismissed by the judge after it was filed. The decision was overturned by a three-judge appeals court panel. Elizabeth Locke is no longer involved in the case, but she has argued on behalf of several high-profile clients in defamation suits against major media outlets and has been at the forefront of the conservative effort to make the rethinking of libel laws more mainstream. Ms. Locke said in an interview that the Sullivan precedent fails in today's media culture.

She asked how to balance free speech rights with the right to your individual reputation in the context of public officials who have volunteered for public service.

Redrawing the balance doesn't mean that journalists are locked up or that false statements will result in a huge jury verdict. The potential for legal liability, which is virtually impossible with the Sullivan standard in place, would create self-restraint.

Mr. Bennet had to know that there was no evidence that her political rhetoric incited the shooter and that he had a "preconceived storyline" and harbored ill- will toward the pro-gun rights former governor in part because of his brother, Senator.

The Times denied the allegations that it would ever knowingly print something false and that Mr. Bennet was acting out of spite. An editorial about an important topic contained an inaccuracy. Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for The Times, said that they set the record straight. We are committed to fairness and accuracy in our journalism, and when we fall short, we correct our errors publicly.

A lawyer for Ms.

Mr. Bennet left the paper in 2020 after the newspaper published an Op-Ed by Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, calling for a military response to civic unrest in American cities. Readers and Times journalists were upset by the piece.

Mr. Bennet is expected to testify on Wednesday.