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Regarding Sarah Palin, Was the 'New York Times' Sloppy, Malicious or Careless?

The case of Palin v. New York Times has now begun its day in federal court, with the Times arguing that the suit should be dismissed:

Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against The New York Times should be tossed because the paper made “an honest mistake” when it said she incited a 2011 shooting that severely wounded Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and killed six people, a lawyer for the Gray Lady said on Friday. “There was an honest mistake in posting the editorial,” lawyer David Schultz told Manhattan federal Judge Jed Rakoff.

On Friday, Palin’s lawyers argued that the Times knew the story was false. “It was literally acknowledged the same day in another story in their paper,” said Kenneth Turkel.

As I pointed out in this space earlier this month, I think Palin has a strong case. Defamation suits brought by public figures generally founder on the malice/reckless disregard provisions of the applicable laws, as determined by the Supreme Court in the landmark Sullivan decision, which coincidentally enough also involved the Times.

It was 1960 and the Civil Rights Movement was gaining strength. Civil rights leaders ran a full-page ad in the  New York Times to raise funds to help civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Sixty well-known Americans signed it. The ad described what it called “ an unprecedented wave of terror” of police actions against peaceful demonstrators in Montgomery, Alabama. What it described was mostly accurate, but some of the charges in the ad were not true. For example, the ad said that police “ringed” a college campus where protestors were, but this charge was exaggerated. The ad also contained the false statement: “ When the entire student body protested to state authorities by refusing to re-register, their dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission.”

L.B. Sullivan was one of three people in charge of police in Montgomery. He sued the New York Times for libel (printing something they knew was false and would cause harm). The ad did not mention Sullivan’s name. But Sullivan claimed that the ad implied his responsibility for the actions of the police. He said that the ad damaged his reputation in the community. In the Alabama court, Sullivan won his case and the New York Times was ordered to pay $500,000 in damages.

In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the New York Times. In order to prove libel, a “public official” must show that the newspaper acted “with ‘actual malice’–that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard” for truth. The Court asserted America’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Free and open debate about the conduct of public officials, the Court reasoned, was more important than occasional, honest factual errors that might hurt or damage officials’ reputations.