PHOENIX — A federal appeals court will let former vice- presidential contender Sarah Palin sue the New York Times for an editorial that suggested that a graphic put out by her political action committee led to the 2011 attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
In a new ruling, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said there was enough evidence to show a Times editorial writer knew there was no link between a graphic that put targets over several congressional districts — including that of Giffords — and Jared Loughner’s subsequently killing six and seriously wounding 13 others in the parking lot of a Tucson Safeway, including the now-former member of Congress.
The decision does not mean the Times is guilty of libel. But it gives Palin, who was the 2008 running mate of Arizona Sen. John McCain, a chance to argue her case to a jury.
Central to the dispute is the map circulated by SarahPAC that superimposed the image of a crosshairs target over certain Democratic congressional districts, an image Judge John Walker, writing for the unanimous panel, said evoked images of violence in the view of many. Giffords’ southern Arizona district was among those targeted.
Six years later, there was another political shooting at a practice for a congressional baseball game, injuring four people including Republican Congressman Steve Scalise.
An editorial published the same evening titled “America’s Lethal Politics,” written by James Bennet, the paper’s editorial page editor, argued the two shootings evidenced the “vicious” nature of American politics.
More to the point, it claimed the “link to political incitement was clear,” mentioning the Palin PAC’s map of targeted electoral districts. And Walker said the editorial suggested — incorrectly — that the members of Congress themselves had been pictured on the map.
It also said there was “no sign of incitement (in the 2017 shooting) as direct as in the Giffords attack.”
Palin filed suit 12 days after the editorial was published.
A trial judge, after a hearing where Bennet was questioned, threw out the case. The appellate court not only found that procedure improper but said there was enough evidence to let the case go to a jury.
Walker noted that before Bennet went to the Times, he was editor-in-chief of The Atlantic. There, Palin said, he approved publication of “numerous articles confirming there was no link between Mrs. Palin and Loughner’s shooting.”
The appellate court said there was other evidence that could lead a jury to conclude that Palin had been libeled because she claims he was “personally hostile toward Palin, her political party and her pro-gun stance.”
Bennet’s brother, a U.S. senator for Colorado, had been endorsed by two House members whose districts also had been targeted by the SarahPAC map.
Two days before the Loughner shooting, a man threatened to open fire on the senator’s offices, after which both Bennet and his brother become “outspoken advocates for gun control.’’ And then there was the fact that Palin endorsed Bennet’s opponent in the 2016 election as Giffords endorsed the senator.
“We conclude that these allegations could indicate more than sheer political bias,” Walker wrote.
“They arguably show that Bennet had a personal connection to a potential shooting that animated his hostility to pro-gun positions at the time of the Loughner shooting in 2011,” Walker wrote, issues that should be decided by a jury.
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