A federal judge in Alexandria has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former Army scientist against the New York Times Co. and columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, ruling that Kristof accurately reported that the scientist was a focus of the FBI probe of the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Steven J. Hatfill, who has been identified by authorities as a "person of interest" in the anthrax-spore mailings that killed five people and sickened 17, filed the suit in July in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. He contended that the paper defamed him in a series of Kristof columns that identified him as a "likely culprit."
But in a decision filed last Wednesday, Chief Judge Claude M. Hilton said that Kristof had not accused Hatfill of guilt and that the columnist was correctly reporting that Hatfill was the "overwhelming focus" of the FBI probe as of last fall.
"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,'' Hilton wrote. "Indeed, for this reason, courts routinely dismiss libel claims against defendants who accurately report on investigations.''
Media lawyers and the Times hailed the decision as an important victory for the rights of journalists to report on law enforcement investigations. "I'm delighted,'' Kristof said in an interview yesterday. "I think this is good for reporters, but more importantly, I think it's good for the country.''
Kristof contrasted the decision with recent court rulings in which journalists have been held in contempt for refusing to testify about confidential sources in other investigations. Several face possible jail time. "This has been a difficult time for journalists lately tangling with the law," Kristof said, "so it's particularly refreshing to see a judicial opinion that marks a real victory for freedom of the press."'
Hatfill's attorney, Victor M. Glasberg, said he agreed that journalists should report on investigations. "But that has nothing to do with what this lawsuit was about," Glasberg said. "It's about the things Kristof wrote and the things he implied. The thrust of his articles was that Hatfill was implicated."
Glasberg would not say whether Hatfill would appeal. Hatfill, who is unemployed, did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.
In a series of columns in 2002, Kristof criticized the FBI for failing to pursue aggressively a scientist whom he initially called "Mr. Z." He wrote that the biodefense community had called Mr. Z a "likely culprit," partly because the scientist was familiar with anthrax.
Kristof later acknowledged that Mr. Z was Hatfill. He also wrote that Hatfill deserved the "presumption of innocence" and that "there is not a shred of traditional physical evidence linking him to the attacks."
The lawsuit was the latest step in the legal battle waged by Hatfill, 50, ever since Attorney General John D. Ashcroft publicly called him a person of interest in the anthrax probe in 2002. Hatfill, a former researcher at the Army's infectious disease research laboratory at Fort Detrick in Frederick, sued Ashcroft and the FBI last year in federal court in the District. That lawsuit is pending.
No one has been charged in the investigation of anthrax-tainted letters mailed to media and government offices. FBI officials yesterday declined to comment on the probe.