RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – The New York Times won dismissal of a libel lawsuit brought by Dr. Steven Hatfill, a former suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five mail handlers, in the 4th Circuit.
Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The Times, covered the case in a series of articles criticizing the FBI’s “lackadaisical” and “unbelievably lethargic” investigation of the anthrax-laced letters that had been mailed to legislators and members of the media, including NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, the New York Post and Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.
Though Kristof lambasted the FBI’s conduct, he also presented evidence pointing to Hatfill, a former biodefense research scientist, as a prime suspect. Kristof noted that Hatfill had access to anthrax, knew how to make it and had a motive.
In his final article in August 2002, Kristof urged the FBI to either exculpate Hatfill or arrest him “to end this unseemly limbo.”
Hatfill filed a defamation claim against the newspaper, saying the articles effectively accused him of bioterrorism “in the mind of a reasonable reader.”
The appeals court affirmed U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton’s dismissal of the case, finding that the columns were not capable of a defamatory meaning under Virginia law.
During discovery on appeal, Hatfill moved to force The Times to disclose five of its confidential sources used to pinpoint Hatfill in the articles. Three voluntarily revealed their identities, and Hilton sanctioned The Times for refusing to give up its remaining two sources. The federal judge then granted summary judgment to The New York Times Co.
The appellate court agreed that Hatfill failed to meet the requirement of public figures to show actual malice. The plaintiff qualified as a public figure, Judge Niemeyer ruled, because he had “voluntarily thrust himself into the controversy surrounding the threat of bioterrorism and the nation’s lack of preparedness for a bioterrorism attack.”