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Murtha, faced with defamation suit, asserts immunity

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals (D.C. Cir.) heard oral arguments this week over whether Rep. John…

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals (D.C. Cir.) heard oral arguments this week over whether Rep. John Murtha should have to testify in a defamation lawsuit he faces over his 2006 comments about the slaying of Iraqi civilians in Haditha.

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich and another Marine filed the suit and won a ruling at the district court level that Murtha must answer questions about his contention, in a press conference and on CNN, that “cold-blooded murder and war crimes” happened at Haditha, according to The Hill. Wuterich is one of four Marines originally charged in the civilians’ deaths; the other cases have been dropped. Wuterich is awaiting a manslaughter trial.

Murtha’s government lawyer contended in court Tuesday that he does not have to testify because his comments were made as part of his official business as a member of Congress, the newspaper said.  

On the other side, Wuterich’s attorneys reportedly told the court Murtha spoke beyond the scope of his employment, as seen by the fact that other lawmakers with similar information on the case chose to hold their tongues.

The Hill points out that Murtha’s case recalls Hutchinson v. Proxmire, the 1979 libel suit against then-Sen. William Proxmire over his "Golden Fleece" awards. The Supreme Court ultimately found that Proxmire’s castigations of government waste were immune insofar as he spoke on the floor of the Senate or with staff members; press releases and newsletters were deemed to be unprotected.