- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006


The Supreme Court refused yesterday to block a defamation lawsuit against the New York Times over columns that linked a former Army scientist to the 2001 anthrax killings.

Authorities have never solved the mysterious mailing of anthrax-laced letters that killed five persons and sickened 17 not long after the September 11 terror attacks.

Steven Hatfill, a physician and bioterrorism expert, was labeled a “person of interest” by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, although he was never charged and has since sued Mr. Ashcroft and others.

A federal judge had thrown out Mr. Hatfill’s lawsuit against the New York Times over 2002 columns by writer Nicholas Kristof that faulted the FBI for failing to thoroughly investigate Mr. Hatfill. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the suit, and the Supreme Court declined without comment to take up the case.

New York attorney David Schulz, who represented the newspaper, said the appeals court decision undermines free-speech protections for reporters and invites more lawsuits over legitimate news reporting.

The Associated Press and some 30 other news organizations urged the court to use the case to clarify reporters’ free-speech protections.

“Reporting on government investigations is critical to the public’s ability to evaluate how their elected and appointed officials are executing the responsibility of enforcing the laws and protecting the peace,” District lawyer Paul M. Smith wrote in the groups’ filing.

Mr. Hatfill’s attorney, Christopher Wright, said that the reporting by Mr. Kristof was reckless, with multiple errors, including the assertion that Mr. Hatfill had failed three polygraph tests.

The Supreme Court itself was touched by the anthrax scare. Traces of anthrax were found in the court’s mail room, forcing the building’s closure for a week in October 2001.

The case returns to federal court in Alexandria, where Mr. Hatfill sued in 2004 claiming defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In its ruling, the appeals court said that the newspaper columns, taken as a whole, might be considered defamatory.

One of the dissenting judges said that the New York Times appeared only to be trying to reveal flaws in the FBI investigation, not to accuse Mr. Hatfill of the slayings.

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