NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · SECOND CIRCUIT · Libel · Feb. 26, 2007
Hatfill settles with Vanity Fair
Feb. 26, 2007 · A former Army bioweapons scientist who was publicly named a “person of interest” in the 2001 anthrax attacks has settled a libel lawsuit with Vanity Fair and Reader’s Digest regarding an article printed in the publications.
The settlement, which was resolved to the “mutual satisfaction of all,” according to a statement released by Vanity Fair, puts an end to a three-year dispute.
The article “The Message in the Anthrax,” which was written by Ronald Foster, an English professor at Vassar College, ran in the November 2003 issue of Vanity Fair. Reader’s Digest later shortened the article and renamed it “Tracking The Anthrax Killer,” publishing it in its December 2003 issue. Foster’s article focused on evidence that may have shown the scientist, Steven Hatfill, was involved in the anthrax attacks.
Hatfill sued the publications in 2004 for defamation, claiming the articles implied that he was behind the attacks. No one has ever been charged in the attacks, which killed five people.
Vanity Fair and Reader’s Digest refused to release any further details of the settlement, but the Vanity Fair statement said the magazine’s owner, Conde Nast Publications, and the author never “intended to imply that they had concluded” that Hatfill “perpetrated the anthrax attacks.”
“To the extent any statements contained in the article might be read to convey that Conde Nast and Professor Foster were accusing Dr. Hatfill of perpetrating these attacks, Conde Nast and Professor Foster retract any such implication,” the statement reads.
In 2005, a federal judge in New York refused to dismiss the case and ruled that there was enough of a claim under Virginia defamation law to go to trial. U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon applied Virginia law because Hatfill was a resident of Virginia at the time the articles were published.
McMahon found that the article could be read to imply that Hatfill was behind the attacks and could suggest that Hatfill was unfit to maintain his security clearance status for his profession.
A federal judge in Alexandria, Va., recently threw out Hatfill’s libel lawsuit against The New York Times for the second time. Hatfill’s attorney has said he will appeal.
Hatfill has also sued federal government officials, saying they violated the Privacy Act by disclosing information about him to the press.
(Hatfill v. Foster, Media Counsel: Jay Ward Brown, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP, Washington, D.C., for Vanity Fair, Laura Handman, Davis Wright Tremaine, Washington, D.C., for Reader’s Digest) — AG