palin considered libel suit against andrew sullivan

Palin Considered Libel Suit Against Andrew Sullivan

A Wall Street Journal article posted today, discussing Sarah Palin’s strategy for marketing her new book Going Rogue reveals, among other things, that Palin consider suing Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan earlier this year for libel:

Ms. Palin was particularly angry at bloggers and the media, associates said, for speculation that her baby Trig was really the child of Bristol, her daughter.

At one point, according to people familiar with the discussions, Ms. Palin considered pursuing a libel suit against at least one blogger, the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan. Ms. Palin decided against such a move because of the publicity it would bring.

Mr. Sullivan, in response, said asking “factually verifiable questions is obviously not libel.”

I have to say that it’s a little difficult to blame Palin.

Now, I like Sullivan and his site.  Reading his blog helped me mature politically.  Through him I gained a lot of respect for the conservative point of view, and a solid preference for a more civil and reasoned style of debate, as opposed to the more inflammatory method employed by many liberals.  I also think he was right to bring up questions about Palin, because there were a lot of things that didn’t make sense about her.

That said, at times his writings on the subject approached and often times crossed the line into Palin Derangement Syndrome (and they sometimes still do).  There’s only so much a person can write about a subject before it stops being a passion and becomes an obsession.  Even one of his own underbloggers, Patrick Appel, disagreed with Sullivan’s obsession with Palin.  It was absolutely ridiculous.  I stick with his blog because I still think he does good writing, but it was an easy decision to skip those posts when he was at his worst.

Still, despite my own misgivings for the way Sully handled Palin, I think she would have been hard-pressed to prove libel.  From a legal perspective, Palin was not only a well known public figure at the time, but a governor.  Then there’s the fact that the questions Sullivan was asking about Palin were based on circumstances that were not difficult to verify in other media; his chief source was the Alaska Daily News.  I also don’t think he ever definitively stated that Trig was not Palin’s baby.  So I conclude that it would have been a very difficult case, and if she had lost, it would only give her opponents more fire power.  She probably made the right decision to not pursue a lawsuit.

More than the legal difficulties of arguing such a charge would have been the prospect of such a suit from a politician who was in office.  It has been done, but historically when these suits have been brought up by incumbent politicians, it has usually led to the Supreme Court ruling for a weakened application of the law when it comes to those people (New York Times Co. v Sullivan, 1964).  I think anyone, even politicians, should have the right to file suit against people who are maliciously trying to hurt their image (which was the Court’s ruling in Sullivan), but I just don’t think those circumstances apply here.

So while I don’t approve of the way Sullivan treated Palin at times, I have a hard time imagining a libel suit going very far.

(H/T, coincidentally, Andrew Sullivan)

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  1. John Carpenter

    November 15th, 2009 at 11:28

    Reply |
    Quote |

    Palin’s hesitancy to spank Sullivan in court can be attributed to two reasons: first, coincidently,

    New York Times Co. v. Sullivan puts the burden of proof on the plaintiff to prove malice if he or she is a public figure and it is rare for such figures to prevail given the burden of proof required to do that.

    Second, Palin’s refusal to bring suit against Sullivan suggests she is thinking about national office. Were she or Harper Collins only interested in book sales, a trial would be a magnificent P.R. coup.

    Sullivan’s obsession (conspiracy about the truth of Trig’s birth), legally speaking, doesn’t pass the laugh test. What would be better for Palin if in a trial that captivated the nation, the allegations of

    deception concerning Trig’s birth were completely impeached and Sullivan and his ilk came off looking like the vindictive bounty hunters they are.

    Now, if Palin has a short political shelf life, count on her using some of her Harper Collins money to

    go after the bloggers with a flurry of law suits.

  2. Michael Merritt

    November 17th, 2009 at 02:55

    Reply |
    Quote |

    Geeze, some of you people just won’t give it up, will you? Even Andrew doesn’t think this story has legs anymore.

  3. Jason Arvak

    November 28th, 2009 at 20:43

    Reply |
    Quote |

    The standard for libel is “malicious disregard for the truth”. As a practical matter, it means two elements:

    (1) The statements must be false

    (2) The statements must be made with malicious intent

    Even though I agree that the courts are likely to be reluctant to impose restrictions on speech about politicians, I think there is a viable cause of action here. If not Sarah Palin herself, Bristol Palin seems to me to have a valid claim against Andrew Sullivan and other extremist Palin-haters. Imagine the outcry if some of the birthers went after Obama’s children. Why is it ok to attack Bristol Palin?

    One does not need to favor Britain’s insanely restrictive libel laws to notice that the Palin-haters have gone round the bend, and the birthers too, for that matter. Maybe a little accountability might be a good thing.

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