Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against The New York Times has been revived after a federal court in Manhattan overturned a district court’s “unusual” dismissal of the case.
“We find that the district court erred in relying on facts outside the pleadings to dismiss the complaint,” reads the decision issued by a Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals three-judge panel Tuesday. “We further conclude that Palin’s Proposed Amended Complaint plausibly states a claim for defamation and may proceed to full discovery.”
The lawsuit was first brought by Palin in June 2017 in response to a much-critiqued op-ed written earier that month by the editorial board of The New York Times titled “America’s Lethal Politics.” The editorial was published in response to a left-wing activist opening fire at a Republican congressional baseball practice that resulted in four people being wounded, among them then-House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, who suffered serious injuries. In the piece, the Times editorial board blamed Palin’s SarahPAC for “political incitement” in the 2011 mass shooting by Jared Loughner, which left six dead and Democratic Rep. Gabreille Giffords grievously wounded. Here is the since-revised passage from the editorial (emphasis added):
Was this attack evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.
Conservatives and right-wing media were quick on Wednesday to demand forceful condemnation of hate speech and crimes by anti-Trump liberals. They’re right. Though there’s no sign of incitement as direct as in the Giffords attack, liberals should of course hold themselves to the same standard of decency that they ask of the right.
No evidence connected Loughner’s actions to the PAC’s ad. Amid a flood of complaints about the passage, the Times revised the passage to remove the phrasing blaming Palin and clarify that the map put the districts, not the representatives, in crosshairs and added the following correction: “An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that a link existed between political incitement and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established.”
Twelve days after publication of the editorial, Palin sued the Times for defamation — but the case was quickly dismissed by Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Southern District of New York. As explained by Law & Crime, Rakoff tossed out the case in 2017 in part based on what the Second District judges stated was evidence outside the case presented during the evidentiary hearing. The panel found that the lower court violated procedural rules in its “unusual process.” The summary of the decision reads:
This case is ultimately about the First Amendment, but the subject matter implicated in this appeal is far less dramatic: rules of procedure and pleading standards. Sarah Palin appeals the dismissal of her defamation complaint against The New York Times (“the Times”) for failure to state a claim. The district court (Rakoff, J.), uncertain as to whether Palin’s complaint plausibly alleged all of the required elements of her defamation claim, held an evidentiary hearing to test the sufficiency of Palin’s pleadings. Following the hearing, and without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment, the district court relied on evidence adduced at that hearing to dismiss Palin’s complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). We find that the district court erred in relying on facts outside the pleadings to dismiss the complaint. We further conclude that Pali’s Proposed Amended Complaint plausibly states a claim for defamation and may proceed to full discovery. We therefore VACATE and REMAND for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
The panel of judges underscored that the Times’ rationale for making its initial claim about “political encitement” not only lacked evidence, the evidence contradicted it. “No evidence ever emerged to establish that link; in fact, the criminal investigation of Loughner indicated that his animosity towards Representative Giffords had arisen before SarahPAC published the map,” the Second District states.
The judges determined that the lower court did not appropriately give the suit a chance to be properly evaluated. “On appeal, Palin argues that the district court’s reliance on the hearing to decide the motion to dismiss offends the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,” the panel concludes. “We agree that the hearing runs headlong into the federal rules.”
The Times responded on Tuesday to the court’s decision to overturn the initial ruling, a spokesman stating, “We are disappointed in the decision and intend to continue to defend the action vigorously.”