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Former female Navy lieutenant a public figure, court rules

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Former female Navy lieutenant a public figure, court rules

  • The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., said former Lt. Carey Lohrenz became a “limited purpose” public figure when she agreed to be among the first women to pilot a combat jet for the U.S. military.

Dec. 16, 2003 — A former Navy lieutenant became a “limited purpose” public figure when she chose to pilot a combat jet for the U.S. military in the early ’90s, a federal court of appeals unanimously ruled last Friday in upholding the dismissal of her defamation suit.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., said former Lt. Carey Lohrenz voluntary became a public figure when she sought to pilot a combat aircraft for the Navy. Lohrenz was among the first women ever trained to fly a combat jet for the U.S. military.

As a limited purpose public figure, the court held, Lohrenz was unable to prove actual malice — the act of publishing something that is knowingly false or with a reckless disregard for the truth — in her 1996 defamation and invasion of privacy suit against The Center for Military Readiness and The Washington Times and The San Diego Union Tribune.

“It was not Lt. Lohrenz’s decision to pursue a Navy career as a combat jet pilot that made her a public figure,” the court ruled, “but rather that in doing so she assumed the risk of success whereby she would become one of the first few women combat pilots and thus necessarily attain ‘special prominence’ in an ongoing public controversy about such opportunities.”

In 1991, Congress repealed a law that barred women from piloting combat jets and bombers, while the Department of Defense lifted a similar ban in ’93. Those actions led to significant public debate about the role of women in combat.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, published several reports that alleged Lohrenz and Lt. Kara Hultgreen were substandard pilots. Hultgreen died in 1994 while attempting to land a F-14 Tomcat fighter jet on an aircraft carrier.

Following Hultgreen’s death, Donnelly wrote a letter to former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, then-chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, alleging that Lohrenz was assigned to the F-14 program because of “politically driven policy.” Based on information she received from sources within the military, Donnelly also wrote that Lohrenz was not qualified to fly combat aircraft. That letter was later published.

On May 20, 1995, Lohrenz was stripped of her flight status.

In its ruling, the court pointed out that reports concerning Lohrenz’s qualifications may have been inaccurate, but given her status as a public figure she had to prove more than negligence in her defamation claim. Actual malice is the standard.

“It’s disappointing, because it seems like such a technicality to me,” Lohrenz told The Washington Post, in an article Dec. 13. “The truth has been rendered here irrelevant.”

Lohrenz’s attorney has said he will appeal the decision, either to the full appellate court or the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Lohrenz v. Donnelly; Counsel: Kent Masterson Brown, Lexington, Ky.) JL


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