NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · U.S. SUPREME COURT · Libel · March 27, 2006
High court refuses to stop anthrax libel suit
March 27, 2006 · The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to stop a defamation suit against The New York Times brought by Dr. Steven Hatfill, the scientist labeled a “person of interest” in the 2001 anthrax-laced letters which killed five people.
The Times had appealed to the Supreme Court to throw out the case before pre-trial collection of evidence begins because it claimed that the stories could not reasonably have accused Hatfill of being the anthrax mailer. By refusing to hear the case, the Supreme Court allows Hatfill’s libel case to continue to trial.
“It’s not unexpected,” said David Schulz, who represents the Times. “Now it’s back to the trenches. We’re confident that at the end of the day that the case lacks merit.”
Hatfill, a former bioweapons researcher for the U.S. Army, sued the Times in 2002 over columns written by Nicholas Kristof criticizing the FBI for not investigating Hatfill. U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton of Alexandria, Va., originally threw out Hatfill’s suit in November 2004, ruling that the stories “are not reasonably read as accusing Hatfill of actually being the anthrax mailer.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) overturned the lower court ruling, reinstating the suit last July. A three-judge panel ruled 2-1 that dismissal is improper “unless it appears beyond doubt that [Hatfill] can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief,” Judge Dennis W. Shedd wrote for the majority.
The Times appealed for full court review of the decision, but in a narrow 6-6 ruling with one judge not participating, the court allowed the three-panel decision to stand in October.
The Supreme Court’s decision has no effect on a separate lawsuit filed by Hatfill against former Attorney General John Ashcroft and other government officials, claiming the government violated his rights under the Privacy Act by leaking his name to the press.
(Hatfill v. The New York Times Co., Media Counsel: David Schulz, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, New York) — CM