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Libel lawsuit over anthrax mailing investigation dismissed

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Libel lawsuit over anthrax mailing investigation dismissed

  • A U.S. district judge dismissed a libel lawsuit brought against The New York Times and one of its columnists by the man who was the focus of an FBI investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Nov. 30, 2004 — A libel lawsuit brought by Steven Hatfill against The New York Times and columnist Nicholas Kristof concerning the 2001 anthrax attacks was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton.

The judge ruled that Kristof’s columns, in which Hatfill was referred to as “a person of interest” in the investigation by Attorney General John Ashcroft, did not defame him, the Associated Press reported.

“It is evident that the Op-Ed pieces highlighting the perceived shortcomings of the FBI are not reasonably read as accusing Hatfill of actually being the anthrax mailer,” Hilton wrote. “The principle that an accurate report of ongoing investigation or an allegation of wrongdoing does not carry the implication of guilt has long been recognized . . . and it is mandated by the First Amendment.”

The Times hailed the decision as an important victory for the rights of journalists to report on law enforcement investigations, The Washington Post reported. “I’m delighted,” Kristof told the Post Monday. “I think this is good for reporters, but more importantly, I think it’s good for the country.”

Until Hatfill, a former U.S. Army bioweapons researcher, held a press conference in August 2002, Kristof referred to him only as “Mr. Z” in his columns. Hatfill has been the only publicly identified “person of interest” in the case and has not been charged, AP reported.

Hilton’s ruling has no effect on a separate libel lawsuit Hatfill filed against Ashcroft and other government officials, claiming he was named a person of interest to deflect attention from their shortcomings in the investigation, AP reported.

(Hatfill v. The New York Times Company; Media attorney: David Schulz, Levine Sullivan Koch and Schulz, New York City) CB

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