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Palin v. The New York Times Company

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  1. Libel and Privacy

Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Date Filed: Dec. 15, 2022

Background: In June 2017, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin sued The New York Times for defamation over statements made in an editorial.

The ensuing trial put a spotlight on New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that strengthened protections for the news media by establishing what’s known as the “actual malice” standard. Under that standard, public officials can prevail in a libel lawsuit only if they can prove that a statement they challenged was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” (The standard was later extended to apply to libel lawsuits brought by public figures like Palin, the former vice presidential candidate who was not in elected office when she sued.)

In February 2022, a day after the federal district court judge presiding over the case said he would dismiss Palin’s lawsuit, the jury issued its verdict that Palin failed to show that the Times acted with actual malice.

Palin appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In her appeal, she argues that the actual malice standard should not apply to her case. She then more specifically claims that the district court erred in holding that she was required to show actual malice as to both falsity and defamatory meaning (i.e., that she was required to show that the Times made its statements “with knowledge that [they were] false or with reckless disregard of whether [they were] false or not” and that the Times intended those statements to convey a defamatory meaning).

Palin also argues that the district court erred in holding that New York’s amended anti-SLAPP law applied to the case retroactively. The law, which was strengthened in 2020 while Palin’s case was ongoing, imposes an actual malice fault standard in any action concerning the “exercise of the constitutional right of free speech in connection with an issue of public interest.”

Our Position: The Second Circuit should affirm the district court’s ruling in favor of The New York Times.

  • The protections of the actual malice standard remain vital today.
  • The actual malice standard applies to a statement’s defamatory meaning as well as its falsity.
  • The amendments to New York’s anti-SLAPP law apply retroactively.

Attorneys at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP represented the Reporters Committee and news media coalition in this friend-of-the-court brief.

Quote: “Today, defamation litigation is brought by politicians and public figures of every kind, against journalists and media outlets across the spectrum of public and political opinion, arising from speech on every conceivable topic. Reporters continue to need the actual malice standard to protect free and open public debate; without it, the press would be hamstrung in its ability to provide important newsworthy information to the American people.”

Related: Amid speculation that federal judges appointed by former President Donald Trump pose a threat to Sullivan, the Reporters Committee reviewed more than 100 rulings citing the Supreme Court decision that were authored or joined by Trump-appointed judges. As RCFP Executive Director Bruce D. Brown and Technology and Press Freedom Project Director Gabe Rottman wrote in a guest essay for Time, the review shows that “there’s little appetite” for revisiting the 1964 decision.

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