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Palin Goes to Trial Against New York Times in Test for Media

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin leaves federal court in New York, Feb. 3, 2022. Her libel suit against The New York Times went to trial Thursday.

Sarah Palin, a former Republican U.S. vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor, went to trial against The New York Times Thursday in a defamation case that could test long-standing protections for American news media.

Palin, 57, sued the Times in 2017 over an editorial that incorrectly linked her political rhetoric to a 2011 Arizona mass shooting that left six dead and then-U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords seriously wounded.

The disputed wording had been added by former editorial page editor James Bennet, who is also a defendant. The Times quickly corrected the editorial.

"What am I trying to accomplish? Justice, for people who expect the truth in the media," Palin told reporters as she entered the Manhattan federal courthouse.

A jury was chosen on Thursday. Palin is expected to be the star witness at the trial, which is expected to last five days.

'Fair play'

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff told prospective jurors that some would undoubtedly have heard of Palin, the Times or both and "will have, perhaps, views. That's irrelevance. What is central to every jury is the American sense of fair play."

The trial was delayed from January 24 because Palin tested positive for the coronavirus. Palin has publicly said she will not get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The trial comes after two U.S. Supreme Court justices and some legal scholars recommended revisiting the high court's landmark 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan that made it difficult for public officials to prove defamation.

To win, Palin must offer clear and convincing evidence that the Times acted with "actual malice," meaning it knew the editorial was false or had reckless disregard for the truth.

Headlined "America's Lethal Politics," the disputed June 14, 2017, editorial was published after a shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, in which Steve Scalise, a member of the House of Representatives' Republican leadership, was wounded. The editorial questioned whether the shooting reflected how vicious American politics had become.

It said "the link to political incitement was clear" when a man named Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in the 2011 shooting after Palin's fundraising political action committee had circulated a map putting Gifford and 19 other Democrats under "cross hairs."

Bennet had added that language to a draft prepared by a Times colleague and did not intend to blame Palin.

The Times later said its quick correction removing those words reflected its lack of actual malice.

'Preconceived narrative'

Palin said the added language fit Bennet's "preconceived narrative," including opposition to gun rights advocacy.

She is seeking unspecified damages, saying the editorial harmed her reputation. The Times has not suffered a loss in a defamation case in more than half a century.

The Supreme Court justices who called for reconsidering the Sullivan precedent are conservatives Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.

Thomas has said little historical evidence suggested that the actual malice standard flowed from the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution's First and 14th amendments.

Gorsuch has said the standard offered an "ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods" in a landscape increasingly populated by media that can disseminate sensational information with little regard for the truth.