Federal appeals court rules for New York Times in anthrax libel lawsuit

[JURIST] A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Tuesday upheld [text, PDF] the dismissal of a libel case brought against the New York Times by former US Army biodefense research scientist Dr. Stephen Hatfill [WP profile]. In its ruling, the court agreed with the decision of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia that Dr. Hatfill was a "limited public figure" and failed to prove that the New York Times used "actual malice" in publishing columns naming him as a suspect in a federal investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks [GWU backgrounder].  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff had profiled a suspect in the anthrax investigation, eventually naming Dr. Hatfill as the prime suspect. Dr. Hatfill was also named by then-US Attorney General John Ashcroft as a "person of interest" in the investigation. In its ruling, the court held that:

Because Dr. Hatfill voluntarily thrust himself into the controversy surrounding the threat of bioterrorism and the nation’s lack of preparedness for a bioterrorism attack, we agree with the district court’s finding that he was a "limited-purpose public figure" and therefore was required to show actual malice. And because Dr. Hatfill did not demonstrate actual malice, the district court properly entered judgment in favor of The New York Times Company. We also conclude that Dr. Hatfill did not present evidence sufficient to prove intentional infliction of emotional distress.
AP has more. The New York Times has additional coverage.

Dr. Hatfill had also filed suit [complaint, PDF; JURIST report] against the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] for damages as a result of DOJ violations of the US Privacy Act [text]. That lawsuit was settled out-of-court [JURIST report] last month. As a result of the settlement of that lawsuit, there is speculation that a landmark contempt case against former USA Today reporter Toni Locy [JURIST news archive] may be dismissed. Locy is currently appealing a contempt of court order [text, PDF; JURIST report] for refusing to disclose government sources who provided information about Hatfill, and had faced significant monetary fines until an appeals court granted [PDF text; JURIST report] an emergency stay against the monetary sanctions while Locy pursued her appeal. 


 

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