- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

A federal appeals court is expected to rule before year’s end on a 7-year-old libel lawsuit that pits a pioneer Navy pilot against prominent activist Elaine Donnelly and her Center for Military Readiness.

Former Navy pilot Carey D. Lohrenz has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reverse a district court judge who dismissed her suit against Mrs. Donnelly. A three-judge panel of the district court heard oral arguments last week.

Mrs. Lohrenz, one of the Navy’s first female combat pilots, asserts that Mrs. Donnelly released an inaccurate report that caused her emotional distress and directly led to the Navy disqualifying her as a carrier pilot.

The center’s 1995, “Double Standards in Naval Aviation,” charged the Navy gave Mrs. Lohrenz special treatment in qualification training for the carrier-based F-14 Tomcat. Mrs. Donnelly said she published the report to ensure the Navy enforced safety standards equally for men and women.

The issue largely centers on whether Mrs. Lohrenz is a “limited purpose public figure.” District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled that Mrs. Lohrenz’s accomplishment made her a public figure.

Judge Lamberth’s ruling meant Mrs. Lohrenz not only had to prove the report was false, but also that Mrs. Donnelly displayed “actual malice” and reckless disregard for the truth in issuing it. He ruled there was no actual malice and dismissed the case.

“Contrary to plaintiff’s argument,” Judge Lamberth wrote, “it is well-settled that private individuals may become limited-purpose public figures unwillingly without voluntarily thrusting themselves into the public eye. The extent of the press coverage also includes this court to hold that the plaintiff was a limited-purpose public figure.”

At last week’s hearing, lawyers argued whether Mrs. Lohrenz’s role as a pioneering female pilot made her a public figure. Her attorney, Richmond Law School professor Rodney Smolla, argued she remained a private citizen despite her notoriety.

Mrs. Donnelly’s attorney, Kent Masterson Brown, said Judge Lamberth ruled correctly.

Mr. Brown cited the appeal circuit’s own previous ruling in another libel case, Dameron v. Washington. The ruling said that by “sheer bad luck” sudden events can thrust a private person into public-figure status. The case had to do with an air-traffic controller on duty during a plane crash.

Mr. Brown argued that Mrs. Lohrenz’s status as a public figure was even stronger, since she volunteered to become a fighter pilot and granted press interviews.

Judge Laurence Silberman said the court is bound by the Dameron decision and asked Mr. Smolla if he wanted the panel to overrule its own ruling.

“We believe the decision is wrong,” the lawyer responded.

Judge Silberman said Mrs. Lohrenz’s role as a Navy pilot was “a good deal more on the voluntary side.” He added, “This case is stronger on behalf of defendants than the Dameron case. Maybe Dameron is wrong but we’re bound by it.”

Judge Richard Roberts asked if Mrs. Lohrenz’s ambition to “show them I’m going to do it” wasn’t tantamount to voluntarily entering the public debate at the time regarding women in combat.

Judge Judith Rogers stated, “She’s not the poster child for the program.” To which Mr. Brown said, “She indeed was.”

Countered Mr. Smolla, “All pioneers are not public figures.”

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