Sarah Palin Pauses NYC Covid Superspreader Tour to Testify in Court - Rolling Stone
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Sarah Palin Pauses NYC Covid Superspreader Tour to Testify in Court

The former VP candidate’s legal team is trying to portray Palin as a single mother and celebrity b-lister, rather than a former governor and Republican operative trying to kneecap ‘The New York Times’

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin arrives to Federal court, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, in New York. Palin is due back in the New York City courtroom more than a week after her libel trial against The New York Times was postponed because she tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin arrives to Federal court, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, in New York. Palin is due back in the New York City courtroom more than a week after her libel trial against The New York Times was postponed because she tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin arrives to Federal court, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, in New York. Palin is due back in the New York City courtroom more than a week after her libel trial against The New York Times was postponed because she tested positive for COVID-19.

John Minchillo/AP

Sarah Palin carried herself with a quaint charm when she took the witness stand Wednesday at Manhattan Federal Court. Sitting behind a three-sided Plexiglass barrier, Palin, in a double-breasted pink jacket, cheerily answered questions about her background, all of which cast the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate as a friendly, maternal figure. Palin’s old-fashioned semi-bouffant only added to this motherly effect.

“What do you do in your day to day?” asked Kenneth G. Turkel, Palin’s attorney.

“Holding down the fort in Wasilla, Alaska,” Palin said.”It’s not super easy conditions, living up there, but I’m used to it, and I don’t complain about it.”

Palin described herself as a “single mom now, and my youngest child, he has special needs, so my life revolves around him.”

Palin, 57, was of course talking about her son Trig, now 13, who was introduced to the world as an infant, when his mother toted him along the campaign trail in 2008. In the years since, Palin has remained in the public eye, appearing at conservative events and on reality TV, which don’t quite project the parental vibe she was going for in court .

On Wednesday, she was testifying about her biographical details for her defamation lawsuit against the New York Times. When her testimony continued into Thursday morning, she portrayed herself as a devoted family woman maligned by the big bad media. In June 2017, Palin sued the paper over an editorial titled “America’s Lethal Politics,” which ran shortly after James Hodgkinson opened fire on Republican politicians during Congressional baseball practice. It incorrectly linked ads from Palin’s political action committee to Jared Loughner’s 2011 attack on former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords in Tucson, Arizona.

The piece stated that her PAC had released advertisements that put “Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.” The Times issued a correction shortly after the editorial was published, noting that these crosshairs actually referred to electoral districts, and not individual lawmakers.

Palin claimed that the debacle caused “anguish, humiliation, embarrassment and damage to her reputation.” Notably, Palin’s two main lawyers, Turkel and Shane B. Vogt, brought down Gawker by landing an $140 million judgment in Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit.

Like that debacle, Palin’s suit is worrisome for free speech protections. She is a public figure whose own actions are, at their best, embarrassing — yet her claims of reputational damage have made it to trial.

Palin tested positive for Covid about two weeks ago, which delayed her trial. Judge Jed Rakoff’s droll comment in court — “she is, of course, unvaccinated” — was catnip for millions of pandemic-weary Americans who are fed up with those who are able yet unwilling to get the jab. Not long after testing positive, Palin rebooted her Covid news cycle when she was spotted dining out in New York City. Before her Covid and trial-related comeback, if you can call it that, Palin’s last mainstream hurrah  was singing “Baby Got Back” in a bear suit on TV.

In the first 13-minutes of direct testimony, it appeared that Palin’s legal team was trying hard to turn around her status as a celebrity b-lister.

Turkel’s initial questions of Palin seemed aimed at making her seem more sympathetic and less ridiculous than her recent media persona. When Turkel asked Palin why she still lived in Alaska, her response was Hallmark-perfect.

“Family, it’s home, and my dad is there,” she said. “I help take care of my dad. He’s elderly.” Plus, her siblings are in Alaska, too. “We’re all just buddies.”

“A lot of people haven’t been to Wasilla. What’s it like?” Turkel said.

“They’re missing out,” Palin responded with enthusiasm. “It’s a small town…It’s just a wonderful place to raise kids and be involved in the community.”

Palin also claimed she got into politics after seeing “corruption and crony capitalism.”

Palin’s trial comes amid heightened pressure on First Amendment protections. Two conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justices — Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch — have suggested that the Times v. Sullivan decision, a landmark ruling that curtailed public officials’ ability to sue for defamation, should be reconsidered. Meanwhile, right-wing figures continue intensifying their attacks on the press.

“You have this former vice presidential candidate — this celebrity — filing a lawsuit against the preeminent news organization in the world, based on a quickly put together editorial that had a couple of errors that they quickly corrected, and really using that as an opportunity to try to bring down the First Amendment,” says Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a partner at Gibson Dunn who is recognized for his freedom of speech work.

“It comes at a time where the First Amendment has been under assault by Donald Trump, by Devin Nunes, by a lot of Republican public figures and political office holders,” Boutrous told Rolling Stone. “It’s a very treacherous time, and I think there’s been this use of libel suits as political stunts, as fundraising tools, but the real problem is they’re used to chill and deter important reporting — and that’s very dangerous.”

James Bennet, then the Times’ editorial page editor, was also named as a defendant in Palin’s lawsuit. Bennet testified that he was heavy-handed in editing the opinion piece—and admitted to inserting errors during his rewrite. “This is my fault,” Bennet testified.  “I mean, I wrote those sentences, and I’m not looking to shift the blame to anybody else.”

The editorial’s original author, Elizabeth Williamson, said on the stand that she had initially proposed a gun policy-focused piece following Hodgkins’ attack. Bennet, however, wanted her to talk about “the rhetoric of demonization [and] whether it incites people to this kind of violence,” she explained.

Although Palin’s presence at court stems from a gripe with the press, she seems increasingly comfortable with the media circus surrounding it. When Palin arrived at court on Wednesday morning with her rumored beau, former Rangers player Ron Duguay, they walked hand-in-hand, smiling and posing for photographers.

Palin didn’t wear pink when her testimony resumed Thursday, electing a tweety white blazer and black dress, a businesslike look that was accessible in its simplicity. Turkel’s questions attempted to establish that Palin’s role as a public figure had greatly diminished since her failed VP bid—and that she suffered emotionally because of erroneous connection to Loughner’s shooting.

Palin talked about reeling from the first time she had been wrongly linked to Loughner’s rampage over the crosshairs map, in 2011, which she said spurred death threats against her and her children. When the Times editorial came out in 2017, Palin said, “I remember feeling immediately, ‘oh no!’”

Turkel asked: “Were you in politics at the time?” and “Were you in the media in 2017 as much as you were in 2011?” Palin said no both times.

“Was your profile as high?” Palin replied: “not at all.”

“I felt powerless,” Palin said shortly thereafter. She said she wondered: “What were the stones that David could use to halt the actions of this Goliath?

Toward the end of Palin’s direct testimony, Turkel asked her about emotional distress. Did she lose sleep, or anything like that?  “It’s hard to lay your head on the pillow and have restful nights when you know that lies are told about you, a specific lie that wasn’t going to  be fixed,” Palin answered.

On cross examination, The Times’s lawyer, David Axelrod, pressed Palin on being a public figure, pointing out that she knew what came with the territory. Axelrod asked whether she had received hate mail since becoming the vice presidential nominee.

“I think ever since I was a city council woman,” she said. Axelrod asked Palin about her appearances on TV, to bolster the idea that she remained in the public eye—and didn’t suffer reputational harm. That included asking about her rendition of “Baby Got Back.”

“It was the most fun 90 seconds of my life,” said Palin.

 

This article has been updated

In This Article: Defamation, Sarah Palin

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