Former Alaska governor, one-time vice presidential candidate and conservative celebrity Sarah Palin has filed a lawsuit against the New York Times for running an editorial insinuating she played a role in former Rep. Gabby Gifford's shooting.
According to a section of the lawsuit tweeted by CNN's Jake Tapper, Palin is suing over a June 14 editorial which she says "falsely stated as a matter of fact to millions of people that Mrs. Palin incited Jared Loughner's January 8, 2011, shooting rampage at a political event in Tucson, Arizona," in which Loughner hit 19 people, including Giffords, and killing six, including Chief U.S. District Court Judge John Roll.
The op-ed in question, "America's Lethal Politics," was a response to the attempted massacre in Alexandria, Virginia, of Republican legislators at a Congressional Baseball Game practice earlier this month.
The piece argued U.S. politics had become "vicious," particularly "heated political rhetoric on the right." It specifically cited that before the Loughner shooting, "Sarah Palin's political action committee circulated a map that showed the targeted electoral districts of Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs."
After the op-ed was published and received a forceful pushback, the Times appended a sentence saying, "But in that case no connection to the shooting was ever established." In a correction, it walked back the claims further.
As the Washington Post noted, it's unclear whether Loughner ever actually saw the fliers and apparently became fixated on Giffords years earlier. He was a registered Independent with some fringe views, but not known as a clear conservative ideologue.
But Palin's lawsuit will face a high bar in the courts, which typically set a high bar for libel against public figures — even when the publication in question is considerably less reputable, like a tabloid magazine. Plaintiffs have to prove "actual malice," which necessitates demonstrating a publication or author was not just reckless but determined to damage the plaintiff's reputation with deliberate lies.
It does not appear the original editorial ever actually said Palin was personally responsible for inciting the shootings, just that her ads were part of the aforementioned "heated political rhetoric on the right."
Attorney Vincent Chieffo told the New York Times all the way back in 1991 that the nation's newspapers have invested considerably in intimidating legal defense teams.
"It's the scorpion defense: You don't attack a scorpion because you're going to get stung," Chieffo said. "It's very tough. It's very difficult to prevail."
Palin's lawsuit comes at a time when President Donald Trump has threatened to "open up" libel laws, though he has as of yet not proposed any meaningful plan to do so.
Palin isn't the only prominent conservative in a legal dispute over coverage: Also on Tuesday, BuzzFeed News reported Kansas teacher's union president Steve Wentz had filed against right-wing provocateur James O'Keefe of Project Veritas, saying O'Keefe had selectively edited a video to make it appear as though he threatened students with violence.