“He did follow the law, which is what he’s supposed to do. And there is no actual malice according to the evidence,” said Mr. Freeman, a former lawyer for The Times. “But generally a judge would hold his views in his pocket.” And now, he added, what the jury does “has no legal power at this point.”
Rarely do libel suits reach a trial. This case, legal experts said, has the potential for far-reaching ramifications for the longstanding body of law that gives journalists breathing room to make mistakes without fear of legal consequence. Ms. Palin’s lawyers have said they view the case as an opportunity to allow the court to revisit those precedents, which they have argued are too expansive.
“Everything about this case is rare,” said RonNell Andersen Jones, a professor at the University of Utah College of Law who focuses on media law. She noted that the judge’s decision on Monday, coupled with the specter of a national news organization’s having to defend its editorial decision-making process to a jury, has underscored its importance.
“A lot of us have watched this case with anxiety because we realize that in public discourse massive, regrettable mistakes are sometimes made, and that’s baked into this standard,” Ms. Jones said.
Judge Rakoff’s ruling, she added, helps prevent the possibility that an appeals court could ask for another trial. “This jury verdict was never going to be the ultimate word on this,” she said. “But this lays the groundwork for the future trajectory of this case in preserving the verdict so the case won’t have to be retried.”
Ms. Palin’s lawyers declined to comment after Judge Rakoff announced his decision. A spokeswoman for The Times, Danielle Rhoades Ha, called it “a reaffirmation of a fundamental tenet of American law: Public figures should not be permitted to use libel suits to punish or intimidate news organizations that make, acknowledge and swiftly correct unintentional errors.”
Ms. Palin has pursued the suit for nearly five years and said on the witness stand that she viewed it as a David-versus-Goliath struggle. Her suit alleges that The Times defamed her with an editorial that incorrectly asserted a link between her political rhetoric and a shooting that killed six people and wounded 14 near Tucson, Ariz., in 2011. The wounded included Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic member of Congress, whose district had been one of 20 singled out on a map circulated by Ms. Palin’s political action committee underneath digitized cross hairs. There was no evidence that the gunman had seen or been motivated by the map.