Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fourth Circuit decides defamation suit againt NYT

In Hatfill v. The New York Times, the Fourth Circuit upheld the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Times. Hatfill alleged that a series of columns published in the newspaper implicated him in the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people and sickened 17 others. Key to the holding was that Hatfill is a limited purpose public figure. The court held that Hatfill was accorded this status because he publicly discussed the threat of bioterrorism and the nation’s lack of preparedness for such an attack both before and after the attacks.

As a public figure, Hatfill would have to prove actual malice to succeed in a libel suit against the Times. The Fourth Circuit held that no reasonable jury could have found actual malice.

Indeed, the record contains substantial evidence to support TheNew York Times' contention that Kristof actually believed that Dr.Hatfill was the prime suspect. At the time that Kristof wrote his columns,he knew from several sources that Dr. Hatfill fit the profile that the FBI had developed and that he had been identified specifically by the FBI as a suspect who should be investigated carefully. In conducting research for his columns, Kristof had reviewed many previously published articles about Dr. Hatfill, which recounted that he had been questioned by the FBI more than once; that he had voluntarily vaccinated himself against anthrax shortly before the mailings; that he had access to labs where anthrax was stored; that he had knowledge about anthrax’s use as a weapon; that he had strong views about the bioterrorism threat; that he had agreed that his "background naturally drew the FBI’s attention"; that he had spoken frequently about possible bioterrorism; and that he lost his security clearance after he failed a polygraph test shortly before the mailings. In addition, Kristof reviewed numerous documents, including Dr. Hatfill’s resume and various reports, papers, and letters written by him describing his knowledge of bioterrorism and biological weapons.

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