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Libel Laws, Once Again, Being Challenged

In the recent articleSarah Palin’s libel trial against The New York Times begins againby Jeremy W. Peters, the writer discusses updates regarding the recent court case Palin v. N.Y. Times Co. – 933 F.3d 160 (2d Cir. 2019). The nature of this case is around libel and defamation in which the former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, was erroneously attributed to a mass shooting outside Tucson, Arizona in 2011 that left six dead and wounded former Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Nonetheless, the trial over the defamation suit against The New York Times resumed on Thursday, Feb the 3rd, after delaying a week and a half since Ms. Palin was tested positive for the coronavirus. In the trial, Shane Vogt, Ms. Palin’s lawyer, asked the jurors to have an unbiased opinion towards the former Alaska governor. He said that Ms. Palin was not “asking for your votes”, but instead asking the jurors to see the error as a “reckless disregard” for truth. Furthermore, Ms. Palin’s main argument was that the paper published by The New York Times should be held liable because “its opinion editor at the time, James Bennet, acted with a vendetta toward her.” However, the lawyer representing The Times, David Axelrod, responded that Mr. Bennet and the other Times journalists involved in this editorial did not behave in a malicious way as The Times published a correction within 12 hours after it went live. Despite this, numerous readers had already pointed out the mistake and drew attention on Twitter. Furthermore, Mr. Axelrod claimed that “It was preposterous to believe, as Ms. Palin has claimed, that she could have suffered harm from an editorial that did not mention her name in its headline, referenced her briefly, and was corrected.” Mr. Axelrod also stated that there were only “Two sentences available to readers online for a total of 12 hours.” In addition to the defamation trials, Peters also mentioned that Ms. Palin was in the news for other reasons. For instance, she is not vaccinated and was spotted before the trial’s original start date dining indoors at an Upper East Side restaurant despite New York City’s requirement that all people dining indoors need to be vaccinated. The article concludes with a statement that it is unusual for a defamation lawsuit against a news organization to advance to the trial stage as seen in precedents such as the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times Company v. Sullivan. This case will be a “legal test” for those who argue that the freedom of press from the First Amendment is too broad, and media outlets should pay a heavier consequence for getting something wrong.

This article/case directly relates to the First Amendment freedom of the press since the motion of the case is based around how the New York Times defamed Ms. Palin in an editorial they published. This is a spotlight case surrounding libel law since it tests the freedom of press and freedom of speech protections as to what extent is considered libel. Taking a closer look at the case, The Times said it had “incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting.” The question is, does this infringe the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and freedom of the press? Some would argue that media outlets such as The Times should have a larger legal consequence when they make a mistake, but as it turns out, in a precedent landmark 1964 Supreme Court case The New York Times Company v. Sullivan; the ruling established a standard that needs to be met to prove defamation. For instance, individuals had to show not only a report that was inaccurate and harmed their reputation, but that those who produced it had acted with “actual malice,” meaning they continue to distribute false information recklessly, disregarding the truth or knowing it was false. In other words, the law currently considers an occasional mistake a common outcome of a free press. As a result, Ms. Palin, through public statements, tried to convince the courts to rethink the leeway that media organizations have to make unintentional errors. However, this is unlikely considering that press protections in America are much more prominent than in other countries.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to one question; should we support broad free speech protections? And if so, would it be detrimental to us that public officials and elites can use threats of defamation lawsuits to change news and suppress important public concerns?

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