Monday, July 14, 2008, 5:58 PM

Fourth Circuit Affirms Dismissal Of Defamation Suit Against NY Times Re: Post-9/11 Anthax Incidents

Today the Fourth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the NY Times in a defamation suit arising from articles written by NY Times commentator Nicholas Kristof regarding the government's investigation of the post-9/11 anthrax incidents. The case is Hatfill v. New York Times.

After the 9/11 attacks someone sent letters laced with anthrax through the U.S. mail to members of Congress and news organizations. Five people who handled the mail died from contact with the anthrax. Kristof's articles criticized the FBI's investigation and suggested that Dr. Steven Hatfill, a biodefense research scientist, was a suspect. In one of his articles, Kristof demanded that the FBI either exculpate Dr. Hatfill or arrest him.

Dr. Hatfill sued the NY Times for defamation. Today the Fourth Circuit held that Dr. Hatfill was a "limited-purpose public figure" because he voluntarily thrust himself into the controversy surrounding the threat of bioterrorism and the nation’s lack of preparedness for a bioterrorism attack. Therefore, to establish defamation, he was required to show actual malice by clear and convincing evidence (under the Supreme Court's New York Times v. Sullivan and Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. line of cases). Dr. Hatfill couldn't do that--indeed, the record showed that Kristof actually believed that Dr. Hatfill was the prime suspect--so the NY Times won.

Aside from being an interesting read, this is an important case concerning the "limited public figure" doctrine.

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