Supreme Court won't hear Hatfill's libel suit

Kathleen Cullinan | Libel | Feature | December 15, 2008

The Supreme Court on Monday refused to take up Steven Hatfill's libel lawsuit against The New York Times over a series of 2002 columns describing Hatfill as a possible focus of the anthrax investigation.

The high court made no comment in declining to revive the case.

Hatfill's four-year-old suit against the paper has twice been considered by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) and twice been tossed at the district court level. In it, he alleged that Nicholas Kristof's columns, "both directly and by implication," falsely accused him of mailing anthrax-laced letters in the fall of 2001.

Once considered a "person of interest" in the anthrax investigation, Hatfill's name was officially cleared this summer. His onetime colleague, Bruce Ivins, died of an apparent overdose in late July in the face of an indictment in the attacks.

The Times lawsuit was one of several Hatfill filed over his public link to the case; just this summer, he settled a separate Privacy Act suit with the Department of Justice over the original media leak of his status in the criminal inquiry.  

Kristof dedicated several columns in 2002 to the anthrax case and urged the FBI to either ramp up its investigation of one "Mr. Z," as Kristof called him, or exonerate the man. In August of that year, at a press conference Hatfill called to proclaim his innocence, he outed himself as "Mr. Z."

In addition to the broad libel claim, Hatfill listed 11 statements from the columns he believed were defamatory. He further alleged The Times intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him.

The district court first dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim. Chief District Judge Claude Hilton found, among other things, that the Kristof columns could not "reasonably be read" as pointing the finger at Hatfill.

Hatfill won a reversal of that order on appeal. In a July 2005 published opinion, the Fourth Circuit found that the columns were in fact capable of carrying defamatory meaning.

Once Hatfill had identified himself as "Mr. Z," the court found, the litany of reasons Kristof had supplied in The Times for encouraging investigators to look harder at him would make "a reasonable reader . . . conclude that Hatfill was responsible for the anthrax mailings in 2001." In a footnote, Judge Dennis Shedd wrote that Kristof went beyond reporting on the official investigation and its possible targets and actually "generated suspicion" of Hatfill.

The case was thus sent back to the district court, where early last year Hilton granted a Times motion for summary judgment: Insofar as national concerns over biological warfare were concerned, Hilton found, Hatfill was a limited-purpose public figure and so subject to the higher standard of actual malice for a defamation claim.

Again, Hatfill appealed; he said he was not in fact a public figure, and argued that in any case he had supplied the requisite evidence of actual malice on The Times's part to override summary judgment. In an opinion issued this summer, the Fourth Circuit upheld the lower court ruling.

Writing for the court, Judge Paul Niemeyer plodded through a lengthy examination of Hatfill's career as a scientist, for both the government and private entities, and his history of appearing on television and in newspapers providing his expertise on biological weapons. Given all that, Niemeyer concluded, Hatfill clearly had access to the media and had "voluntarily assumed a role of special prominence in a public controversy" -- elements of a limited-purpose public figure designation.

"Through these media, Dr. Hatfill voluntarily thrust himself into the debate," Niemeyer wrote. "He cannot remove himself now to assume a favorable litigation posture."  

Lastly, the court found that Kristof truly believed Hatfill might have been linked to the attacks, and so The Times did not publish with actual malice. For that, the paper evidently did not intentionally inflict emotional distress.