Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin filed a defamation lawsuit against The New York Times on Tuesday, claiming the newspaper falsely linked her to the 2011 mass shooting in Arizona that wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in New York, says a Times editorial earlier this month “falsely stated as a matter of fact” that Palin had incited the attack, in which a gunman shot 19 people, killing six of them.
The Times published the editorial on June 14, shortly after a gunman opened fire on Republican lawmakers at a baseball field in Alexandria, injuring U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, and several others. Drawing a parallel to the Arizona shooting, the newspaper’s editorial board wrote that both attacks fit a “sickeningly familiar pattern” and that the “link to political incitement was clear.”
“Before the shooting,” it read, “Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral district that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.”
The description was inaccurate. The map had put cross hairs over targeted electoral districts but not Democratic politicians. Following a wave of backlash on social media, the Times issued an apology and corrected the editorial, saying no connection between political incitement and the Arizona shooting was ever established.
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker found that the Times had relied on a thoroughly debunked talking point in its description of the map and noted that the Arizona gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, had no clear political views.
A Times spokeswoman said in a statement Tuesday: “We have not reviewed the claim yet but will defend against any claim vigorously.”
Palin’s lawsuit alleges the Times “violated the law and its own policies” in the editorial and criticizes the newspaper for not mentioning Palin by name in its correction.
“Given that the entire premise of the Palin Article was the ‘disturbing pattern’ of politically incited violence emanating from a non-existent link between Mrs. Palin and Loughner’s 2011 crime, which The Times conceded did not exist, the entire Palin Article should have been retracted — not minimally and inadequately corrected — and The Times should have apologized to Mrs. Palin,” the complaint reads.
Palin’s lawyers allege the Times knew when it published the editorial that there was no link between Palin’s political activities and the mass shooting in Arizona. The complaint lists a series of Times articles indicating that Loughner’s attack was not politically motivated, including a January 2011 commentary in which columnist Charles M. Blow argued there was “no evidence then, and even now, that overheated rhetoric from the right had anything to do with the shooting.”
The Times reported regularly on Loughner’s criminal case, which did not turn up any evidence that his actions were politically motivated, the complaint says. There was also nothing to suggest he saw a map of the targeted districts that the editorial mentioned, it says.
The lawsuit also says the Times’s statements linking Palin to Loughner’s crimes “stood in stark contrast” to how it covered the motives of James Hodgkinson, the gunman who fired on the lawmakers in Alexandria before being fatally shot by police.
“The Times concluded that there was not a connection between Hodgkinson and his professed penchant for Democratic stances sufficient to warrant implicating Democrats or the Bernie Sanders campaign as inciting factors for Hodgkinson’s attack,” the complaint reads.
Palin has drifted out of the limelight since her unsuccessful bid for the White House with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, in 2008 and parted ways with Fox News, where she was a political commentator, in 2015. But she still commands a massive following on social media, particularly among conservatives, and continues to advocate for right-wing causes.
As a public figure, she will have to prove among other things that the Times knowingly published false information about her to prevail in her lawsuit.