Sarah Palin sued The New York Times for defamation. The outcome of this case could determine how news organizations report political information in the future.
By Tiarra Drisker ‘25
Sarah Palin, a former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate, sued The New York Times for libel in reference to an editorial article that links the shooting of representative Gabby Giffords to Palin’s campaign rhetoric in 2017.
After an appeal of its initial dismissal, the case was heard by a jury earlier this month. Then, on Monday, Feb. 14, Judge Jed Rakoff who was overseeing the lawsuit announced he will dismiss the suit. The dismissal all but seals the fate of the suit reaching the second circuit and potentially the Supreme Court.
The New York Times cited a map portraying Giffords and other democrats under stylized cross hairs. Palin’s political action committee created the map to encourage voters to vote republican, but the New York Times claimed that this map inspired Giffords’ shooter. Since The New York Times v. Sullivan case of 1964, news outlets have received leeway when reporting on public figures. The decision of The New York Times v. Sullivan case held that freedom of speech protections in the First Amendment prohibit the ability of American public officials to sue for defamation. The Supreme Court recognized that it would be inherently problematic if they punished news outlets when they published news stories in good faith but got key facts incorrect. Without this ruling, libel laws would become powerful tools for influential political and economic leaders to punish news outlets for publishing stories that are critical of them.
“Sarah Palin’s case challenges this long-standing precedent,” Kirby Goidel, a professor in the Department of Political Science, said. “Should she be successful, it will undermine an important protection underlying freedom of the press and will likely encourage future lawsuits. In my view, the case itself is an attempt to ‘punch back’ at the news media. Successful or not, forcing a news outlet to defend its reporting in court is an effort to force news outlets to think twice about critical news coverage.”
This is the first defamation case against a news publication that has gone through trial in roughly 50 years, said Tom Burton, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication. The progress of Palin’s case is very rare; usually, cases against news publications are dismissed or settled out of court. American news organizations mostly rely on profit and going to court is expensive. If the court rules in favor of Palin, smaller news organizations may be forced to write whatever will prevent defamation and libel lawsuits.
“The bigger question is whether individuals or political movements are weaponizing the courts,” Burton shared. “They’re using tactics used by certain businesses, especially big corporations, to simply go to court and intimidate people into settling or going away because it costs a lot to go to court and afford attorneys. I think that’s the bigger thing: is this really about defamation or is it about trying to discredit The New York Times, which is perceived as an opponent of conservative right politics?”
Though news organizations have the right to inform the public, they do not have the right to spread misinformation, according to the First Amendment. In fact, journalism is the only profession mentioned in the Constitution with freedom of the press. However, freedom of speech does not come without consequence.
“Journalists have special rights, but they also have special responsibilities,” Burton explained. “Their responsibilities are to find facts and to be fair and diligent about that and to report it to the citizenry. The First Amendment allows you to do that without restriction from the government or harassment from the government.”
The Sarah Palin v. The New York Times case can have a variety of outcomes but the outcome may change the way news organizations handle certain topics. However, Goidel says there is only one thing we as citizens should ensure about the future of journalism.
“We should all be concerned about whether news organizations are doing due diligence in their reporting and working to get the story right,” Goidel said. “We need journalism that does more than generates clicks and likes. To be informed citizens, we need accurate and truthful news content.”
On Sept. 1, 2022, the Department of Political Science became part of the Bush School of Government & Public Service.