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Appellate court affirms summary judgment in Hatfill libel suit

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A federal appeals court in Richmond, Va. (4th Cir.) on Monday upheld the dismissal of a libel suit brought by former…

A federal appeals court in Richmond, Va. (4th Cir.) on Monday upheld the dismissal of a libel suit brought by former Army scientist Steven Hatfill against the New York Times.

Hatfill alleged that a series of columns by Nicholas Kristof implicated him in the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people and sickened 17 others.

The court held that Hatfill was a public figure 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.

“Throughout his career, Dr. Hatfill was not only repeatedly sought out as an expert on bioterrorism, but was also a vocal critic of the government’s unpreparedness for a bioterrorist attack, as evidenced by the topics of his lectures, writings, participation on panels, and interviews,” Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote for a unanimous panel. “Through these media Dr. Hatfill voluntarily thrust himself into the debate. He cannot remove himself now to assume a favorable litigation posture.”

As a public figure, Hatfill would have to prove that Kristof acted with actual malice to succeed in a libel suit against the Times. The court though found that Hatfill could not prove actual malice because Kristof had strong reason to consider the scientist to be the lead suspect in the crime.

The Times was able to support that point despite not being able to rely on two anonymous sources that provided Kristof background on the situation. Kristof refused to identify those sources and the district court judge barred the Times from relying on any information those sources provided.

This is the second of Hatfill’s string of suits revolving around the anthrax mailings to come to an end in the past several weeks. In late June, the Justice Department agreed to pay Hatfill a nearly $6 million settlement to drop his Privacy Act suit against the government for identifying him as a “person of interest” in the attacks.