NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · NEW YORK · Libel · Nov. 8, 2005
Defamation lawsuit over anthrax story can continue
Nov. 8, 2005 · Former U.S. Army bioweapons scientist Steven Hatfill presented a sufficient enough defamation claim against Vanity Fair and Reader’s Digest that his lawsuit over two articles tying him to the 2001 anthrax attacks can go to trial, a federal judge in New York ruled Nov. 2.
The three defendants, Conde Nast Publications, which publishes Vanity Fair, The Reader’s Digest Association, and the author of the articles in question, Donald Foster, had asked the court to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim — a situation in which it is clear that a plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts in support of his claim that would entitle him to relief.
Judge Colleen McMahon applied Virginia defamation law to the case because Hatfill lived in Virginia at the time the articles were printed and many of his personal and professional contacts were in the Virginia-based biodefense industry. Applying Virginia law, the court found that Hatfill had presented a sufficient claim for which a court could provide relief. Since the court must assume that all of the defendant’s allegations are true, it found that the articles in question could be read as libelous.
McMahon found that the Vanity Fair “article can be read to impute the commission of the anthrax murders to Hatfill. It can also be read to assert that Hatfill is unfit to have the security clearance necessary to work in his chosen profession.”
The case concerns two articles, “The Message in the Anthrax” from the October 2003 issue of Vanity Fair and “Tracking the Anthrax Killer,” a shortened version of the original article printed in the December 2003 issue of Reader’s Digest. Foster’s articles focused on evidence which may have shown that Hatfill was involved in the anthrax attacks.
McMahon found that the Vanity Fair article as a whole was capable of having a defamatory meaning and was not simply a report of the FBI investigations. In addition, she ruled that the article could not be read as an opinion because “expressions of opinion may be actionable if they imply an assertion of objective fact.”
Finally, Hatfill alleged that many aspect of Foster’s story were false. McMahon said whether or not they were actually false is “a question for another day.”
For the Reader’s Digest article, the court found that although many of Hatfill’s strongest objections had been edited out, it still was “capable of defamatory interpretation” because a “number of statements in the article fairly imply that Hatfill committed the anthrax murders.”
The New York ruling comes less than a month after the full U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) narrowly voted to allow Hatfill’s libel suit over The New York Times anthrax reports to go forward.
(Hatfill v. Foster; Media Counsel: Jay Ward Brown, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schultz, Washington, D.C., for Vanity Fair; Laura Handman, Davis Wright Tremaine, Washington, D.C., for Reader’s Digest) — CM