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Marijuana is legal in NJ. Now what?

There has been a precipitous decline in public trust in journalism and the media, at large. Over the past several years, sources of information have increasingly become polarized and contentious. Be it the hand of the foreign actors, or thanks to the unbridled growth in citizen journalism through social media - sophisticated misinformation campaigns and “fake news” is all around us. As people depend more on online sources for their news, and such online sources keep growing without any real checks and balances - hoaxes are accelerating the erosion of public trust.

In this backdrop, former Alaska Governor and Mitt Romney’s veep running mate, Sarah Palin decided to file a defamation lawsuit against the NY Times. Why, you ask? Well, NY Times published an editorial piece titled “America’s Lethal Politics” in June of 2017, writing about the unfortunate incident when a gunman decided to fire dozens of rounds into members of Congress enjoying a ball game. The article compared the incident to the 2011 supermarket parking lot shooting incident that grievously wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona. Before the incident, Sarah Palin’s political action committee had come up with a map that showed the targeted electoral districts of Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats - which NY Times erroneously quoted “under stylized cross hairs”. But no connection between the said map and the shooting incident was ever established. Further, The Times corrected the error in less than a day, and the newspaper termed them "an honest mistake." However, Ms Palin interpreted The NY Times editorial suggested her indirect involvement in the shooting of Rep. Giffords, and that NY Times had acted with actual malice. The consequence was the defamation lawsuit.

The legal standard of "actual malice," set in a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that also involved The NY Times, requires that the newspaper either knowingly published damning and false information or recklessly disregarded the likelihood that its claims were likely to prove false. In our world full of “fake news” Ms Palin may have thought of this as an opportunity to bring down the news organization. Many media lawyers saw the lawsuit as a sharp challenge to the protections afforded to the press by the Supreme Court's 1964 decision so that journalists could offer tough scrutiny of public figures, even when making mistakes in good faith.

Thankfully, both jurors and US District Judge Rakoff agreed on the dismissal of the lawsuit. NY Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha said it best,”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."

Maybe Ms Palin will appeal the decision, and continue to push down hard on what she calls “lamestream media.” Instead, she may want to focus on bringing the actual perpetrators of “fake news” to justice. That said, there is no easy solution. There are widespread concerns that criminalising fake news could lead to censorship and the suppression of critical thinking and dissenting voices. The boundary between spreading disinformation with a malicious intent and an expression of opinion, is rather fuzzy and blurred. Till such time that we are appropriately able to fact check and punish the real offenders, the spread of “fake news” will have serious implications on human rights.

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