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Sarah Palin’s defamation trial against New York Times delayed by positive coronavirus test

The long-awaited trial, which could test key First Amendment protections for media, is rescheduled for Feb. 3.

Jury selection was set to begin on Jan. 24 in Sarah Palin's defamation lawsuit against the New York Times over a 2017 editorial. (Video: Reuters)

NEW YORK — A long-awaited showdown in a Manhattan courtroom between Sarah Palin and the New York Times over a 2017 editorial she says defamed her was delayed Monday when the former Alaska governor tested positive for the coronavirus.

The trial was expected to begin with jury selection Monday morning, but U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff told his Manhattan courtroom that he had learned Sunday night that Palin had tested positive on an initial test. “She is, of course, unvaccinated,” he noted.

After she took another test on Monday morning, Rakoff rescheduled the trial for Feb. 3.

As the first libel case against the Times to go to trial in the United States in 18 years, the case has been closely watched as a high-stakes test of First Amendment principles and protections.

At issue is an unsigned 2017 editorial that Palin alleges libeled her by linking an ad from her political action committee in 2011 to a mass shooting that same year in Arizona that killed six people and wounded 12 others, including Gabby Giffords, then a Democratic member of Congress.

While Palin as public figure faces a high hurdle to prove libel, the Times’s editorial was clearly wrong before it was corrected, and the case was expected to reveal embarrassing details about journalistic processes gone awry within one of the nation’s most prestigious news organizations.

The Times’s lawyers will say that its journalists made an innocent mistake that was soon corrected, said David McCraw, the Times’s deputy general counsel. But Palin’s team plans to argue that James Bennet, the paper’s former editorial page editor, had it out for the former governor since years before he joined the Times and that he disregarded his own editors and even his own paper’s previous news coverage to make a libelous argument about Palin.

Whether the Times wins or loses the case, it could set in motion a series of appeals that could undercut the media’s ability to report aggressively on public figures in the United States.

The suit has been on a winding road since Palin first filed it more than four years ago. Rakoff initially dismissed the case against the Times but his ruling was overturned by an appellate court.

After learning of Palin’s coronavirus test, Rakoff noted that the trial could move forward this week with Palin’s consent, and that she could testify through a videoconferencing link. But Palin’s lawyers indicated that she wanted to be in the courtroom for jury selection and her own testimony.