Court: “Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not”
A federal court in Manhattan has dismissed Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the NY Times.
Analysis to follow:
This is a case where the NY Times Editorial author James Bennet claimed to be so ignorant, so uninterested in doing any research, and so oblivious to his surroundings, that his ignorance turned into legal bliss.
Here are the opening and penultimate paragraphs of the Opinion:
Nowhere is political journalism so free, so robust, or perhaps so rowdy as in the United States. In the exercise of that freedom, mistakes will be made, some of which will be hurtful to others. Responsible journals will promptly correct their errors; others will not. But if political journalism is to achieve its constitutionally endorsed role of challenging the powerful, legal redress by a public figure must be limited to those cases where the public figure has a plausible factual basis for complaining that the mistake was made maliciously, that is, with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard of its falsity. Here, plaintiff’s complaint, even when supplemented by facts developed at an evidentiary hearing convened
by the Court, fails to make that showing. Accordingly, the complaint must be dismissed.
* * *
We come back to the basics. What we have here is an editorial, written and rewritten rapidly in order to voice an opinion on an immediate event of importance, in which are included a few factual inaccuracies somewhat pertaining to Mrs. Palin that are very rapidly corrected. Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not.
The Court repeatedly took facts that arguably showed reckless disregard for the truth, and turned them around to argue they created an inference against malice. For example, a hyperlink in the editori8al contradicted the text of the editorial, leading many commenters to argue that this showed recklessness. But to the contrary, the court considered the hyperlink the equivalent of a footnote, presuming it constituted disclosure of the material.
The inclusion of this article through the hyperlink shows, first, that the Times did do some research before publishing the editorial (despite the very limited time available) and, second,
that the allegation of actual malice is even more improbable because the Times included as a hyperlink an article undercutting its own conclusions.
There should be a high bar for alleging defamation against a public figure. But ignorance shouldn’t be bliss, as it was here.
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