Sarah Palin’s defamation trial against the New York Times kicked off in Manhattan Thursday with the former Alaska governor’s lawyer claiming “facts didn’t matter” to the paper when it published an editorial linking her to a mass shooting.
Opening statements in the civil case moved forward in Manhattan federal court after being delayed for more than a week after Palin tested positive for COVID-19 last Monday.
The former GOP vice presidential candidate alleged in her suit that a 2017 editorial printed by the Grey Lady linked her political action committee to a mass shooting in Arizona that wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords and killed six people.
Palin’s lawyer, Shane Vogt, argued that the Times and then-editorial page editor James Bennet acted with reckless disregard for the facts by linking Palin with the shooting.
“The facts didn’t matter. That’s what the evidence here will show,” Vogt told jurors, suggesting the editorial pushed a false, GOP-bashing narrative instead of being properly fact-checked.
The editorial suggested a map distributed by Palin’s political action committee that featured stylized crosshairs over congressional districts, including Gifford’s, contributed to the shooting. The editorial was corrected hours after it was published.
“No evidence he was politically motivated,” Vogt said, referring to the gunman who shot Giffords. “It was an assumption. Bennet had his narrative and he stuck to it.”
In his opening statement, David Axelrod, a lawyer for the Times and Bennet, said the newspaper made an honest mistake that was corrected the morning after it was published.
“This mistake was in no way international,” Axelrod said.
He then pointed to an email that will be shown at trial between Bennet and a columnist at the paper, Ross Douthat.
Hours after the editorial was published, Douthat emailed Bennet, telling him he believed the editorial unfairly linked Palin to the shooting.
In his response, Bennet said he was “unaware his words would be understood” that way. Almost immediately after, he began the process of issuing a correction.
Axelrod also argued that Palin was not harmed by the editorial. She faced no monetary repercussions and has continued her career as a GOP stalwart and reality TV personality, he said.
The editorial also sought to hold both Republicans and Democrats responsible for heated rhetoric — and even praised former President Donald Trump for a statement he made after a shooting that wounded GOP Rep. Steve Scalise, Axelrod added.
To win the case, Palin will have to prove the newspaper and Bennet acted with “actual malice” or “reckless disregard” for the truth when they published the editorial.
“In this trial we are seeking to reaffirm a foundational principle of American law: public figures should not be permitted to use libel suits to punish unintentional errors by news organizations,” a spokesperson for the Times said in a statement.
We published an editorial about an important topic that contained an inaccuracy. We set the record straight with a correction,” the spokesperson added.
The trial was supposed to kick off last Monday but was postponed after the former GOP heavyweight tested positive for COVID-19.
Palin has said publicly that she’s unvaccinated and told a conservative radio host that it would be “over my dead body that I’ll have to get a shot.”
On Thursday, Palin was wearing a court-required N-95 mask as she rode the elevator up to the courtroom on the 24th floor. She carried another cloth mask in her hand that had a Rangers logo on it.