NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · FOURTH CIRCUIT · Libel · Nov. 20, 2006
Judge limits Times defense in libel suit
Nov. 20, 2006 · The New York Times cannot use information from two confidential sources in defending against a libel suit brought by a former Army scientist, a federal magistrate judge in Virginia ruled last week.
Judge Liam O’Grady’s Friday ruling comes more than three weeks after the same judge ordered the Times to reveal confidential sources that Nicholas Kristof used in columns written about the anthrax mailings of 2004. Steven Hatfill, a former Army scientist, was publicly named a “person of interest” in the mailings but was never charged.
Kristof and the Times have refused to name two FBI officials who served as confidential sources, but Kristof has revealed the identities of three other formerly unnamed sources who he said recently released him from his confidentiality pledge.
O’Grady did not impose the large fines sought by Hatfill, who sought to make the Times pay $25,000 a day and increase the fine by $25,000 a month until the newspaper named the two sources.
David McCraw, senior counsel for the Times, said O’Grady’s ruling was a significant break from Hatfill’s attorneys’ arguments that the media should be compelled to reveal confidential sources and that there should be “significant financial penalties until that compulsion occurs.”
“From a newspaper’s standpoint, the difference between those two things is huge,” McCraw said.
O’Grady’s ruling means that Kristof may not cite information received from the two confidential sources as confirmation for his columns. The libel trial is scheduled to start in January in Alexandria, Va.
Times attorneys said in court that their defense would have been “extremely strong” had they been allowed to use information from those two sources, McCraw said. Still, he said the newspaper will be able to “put on a credible defense.”
Hatfill’s libel suit was originally dismissed by a federal judge in 2004, but a federal appeals court in Richmond reinstated the case last year.
(Hatfill v. The New York Times, Media Counsel: David A. Schulz, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP, Washington, D.C.) — RG