Suit Against Times to Be Tossed Out
Saturday, January 13, 2007
A federal judge said yesterday that he will throw out -- for the second time -- the defamation lawsuit a former Army scientist filed against the New York Times Co. over columns that he contends blamed him for the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Saying that the Times's motion to dismiss the case "should be granted," U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton in Alexandria canceled a trial set for Jan. 29, according to the court's docket. Hilton indicated that he would explain his reasoning in a subsequent order throwing out the case.
The development is a victory for Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, who has been fighting the lawsuit filed by Steven J. Hatfill in 2004. Hatfill said the paper defamed him in a series of Kristof columns that identified him as a "likely culprit" in the anthrax-spore mailings that killed five people and sickened 17.
Hatfill has been identified by authorities as a "person of interest" in the attacks, but no one has been charged.
David McCraw, assistant general counsel for the Times Co., said the paper is "extremely gratified" by Hilton's decision. "In the end, we think the law worked the way it should, which is to protect aggressive journalism," he said.
Kristof said the decision is an important victory for journalists, who have suffered a series of court defeats recently in efforts to shield news-gathering activities from the legal process. Kristof had earlier refused to disclose confidential sources used for the anthrax columns.
"It's been a very difficult few years for journalists entangled in the law, and so today feels like a victory," Kristof said.
An attorney for Hatfill, a former researcher at the Army's infectious disease research laboratory at Fort Detrick in Frederick, did not return telephone calls late yesterday.
Hilton first threw out the case in 2004, ruling that Kristof accurately reported that the scientist was a focus of the FBI probe. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reinstated the suit in 2005 and said Kristof's columns could be read as blaming Hatfill for the attacks.
As the case moved toward trial, the Times argued that Kristof did not intend to implicate Hatfill and was only trying to jump-start the FBI investigation. In the 2002 columns, Kristof said the FBI had failed to aggressively pursue a scientist he first identified as "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 Hatfill was Mr. Z and wrote that Hatfill deserved the "presumption of innocence."
Hatfill's attorneys argued that Kristof labeled Hatfill as the anthrax killer and deliberately ruined his reputation.