The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled on Tuesday that the 2017 defamation claim brought by former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin against the New York Times (NYT) may proceed. This decision vacates the ruling by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, which dismissed the claim back in 2017.
Palin’s claim centers on an NYT editorial published in 2017, which allegedly linked her to a mass shooting in Arizona in 2011. The editorial, titled “America’s Lethal Politics,” makes note of a map circulated by Palin’s team that featured “crosshairs” or “bulls-eyes” on congressional districts and claimed that “the link to political incitement was clear.” Within a day of publishing this editorial, the NYT had edited the article and made a retraction.
The circuit court held that the district court erred in dismissing Palin’s complaint by relying on facts outside of the pleadings discussed. Furthermore, the circuit court held that Palin “plausibly states a claim for defamation,” and the claim may proceed to discovery.
The ruling by the circuit court found that the evidentiary hearing held by the district court was improper under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP). During this hearing, James Bennet, the author of the editorial in question and the editorial page editor of the NYT, was called to testify as the only witness. The district court judge explicitly held this hearing as a “test of sufficiency of the pleadings,” and relied on evidence from this hearing to grant the NYT motion to dismiss.
The circuit court noted that had this been a motion for summary judgement instead of a motion to dismiss, the district court would have likely been within the legal parameters of the FRCP to dismiss the claim following the evidentiary hearing.
Under New York law for a party to state a claim of defamation, they must establish five elements:
(1) a written defamatory statement of and concerning the plaintiff, (2) publication to a third party, (3) fault, (4) falsity of the defamatory statement, and (5) special damages or per se actionability. Additionally, a public figure plaintiff must prove that an allegedly libelous statement was made with actual malice, that is, made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
To establish these elements at trial, Palin has a high burden of proof—she must provide clear and convincing evidence of these elements as well as evidence of “actual malice.” In the Proposed Amended Complaint from Palin, she alleges evidence in support of each of these elements, which the circuit court found plausible to support her claim.
This ruling does not address or make any decision as to the merits of Palin’s defamation claim; it simply states that under the FRCP she has a plausible claim that was improperly dismissed.