NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · CALIFORNIA · Libel · Sep. 26, 2006
Operation Tailwind lawsuits put to rest
Sep. 26, 2006 · A federal judge last week ruled in favor of CNN and Time magazine in two libel lawsuits, a decision that may mark the end of a string of lawsuits stemming from a contested 1998 news report alleging the U.S. military used deadly nerve gas in Laos more than three decades ago.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose, Calif., dismissed a lawsuit against CNN and Time and denied a sergeant’s request for damages in a related case.
The cases stem from a two-part news program aired by CNN and an article that appeared in Time magazine in June 1998 stating the U.S. military used deadly sarin nerve gas as part of a top-secret military operation that took place in Laos in 1970. CNN and Time later retracted the story and fired two key producers.
CNN and Time have settled in other libel lawsuits stemming from the Operation Tailwind report.
The latest suit was brought by three soldiers who were pictured in the magazine and broadcast, and claimed the reports defamed them. The soldiers — Keith Plancich, Denver Minton and Mark Kinsler — were not mentioned by name in either publication.
The case turned on whether the news stories created by CNN and Time were critical of the war-time decisions of the U.S. government or the behavior of the individual soldiers involved. Fogel found the news stories to be impersonal criticism of the U.S. government and not directed at the individual soldiers.
The judgment is based on the 1964 Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan, in which the court ruled that an impersonal criticism of the government was protected free expression under the First Amendment.
Army Sgt. Michael Hagen also sought to have CNN and Time pay damages for emotional distress he said he suffered as a result of the news stories. His suit was dismissed because the judge concluded “the record did not contain evidence that Hagen suffered severe or extreme emotional distress as a result of the defendants'[CNN and Time‘s] conduct.”
Kevin Baine, lawyer for CNN and Time, has not heard whether the soldiers will appeal the decisions. The rulings may signal an end of the Operation Tailwind litigation first filed in 1998.
“This is a resolution of final claims in a long-standing battle,” Baine said.
(Hagen v. Cable News Network; Plancich v. Cable News Network, Media Counsel: Kevin T. Baine, Williams & Connolly LLP, Washington, D.C., and Steven R. Manchester, Manchester, Williams & Seibert, San Jose, Calif.) — HS