Experts: Hatfill’s Suit Against ‘NY Times’ Will Be Tough to Win

By: Joe Strupp

Former U.S. Army scientist Steven J. Hatfill’s lawsuit against The New York Times, claiming he was defamed in a series of columns by Nicholas Kristof about the FBI investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks, will be tough to win, according to veteran libel attorneys.

“The basic principle is that accurately reporting the fact that someone is under investigation, and why, is not a proper basis for a libel suit,” said Peter Canfield, an attorney representing The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Click for QuikCap) against a similar pending lawsuit by former Olympic bombing suspect Richard Jewell. “Columnists are entitled to comment on the news.”

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which monitors such legal actions, agreed. “It seems to me this is a tough suit to win and that (Kristof) is a weird choice of a person to go after,” Dalglish said. “He is a columnist and what they would have to prove is that the facts he wrote were false. They would also have to show malice.”

Hatfill, a former U.S. Army researcher, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. on Tuesday, according to today’s Washington Post. The suit alleges that the Times and Kristof defamed him in columns that identified him as a likely suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Hatfill, who was identified by investigators at the time as a “person of interest” in the anthrax case, last year filed suit against Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That case, postponed for six months in March, is still pending. Victor Glasberg, Hatfill’s attorney, did not return calls seeking comment.

A Times attorney, David McCraw, declined to comment, referring all inquiries to the newspaper’s corporate communications office, which issued a statement. “We believe this case does not have merit. Mr. Kristof began a series of columns in July of 2002, criticizing the FBI for its response to the anthrax crisis,” the statement said. “At that time, Dr. Hatfill had already been publicly identified as a person of interest in the investigation. While encouraging the FBI to investigate the matter, Mr. Kristof was careful to note that Dr. Hatfill was presumed to be innocent and that the FBI owed it to him to clear his name if they had no evidence. We believe in a case like this, the law protects fair commentary on an important public issue.”

Dalglish added that Hatfill’s stronger case may be against the federal government if he can prove leaked information damaged his reputation. “If Kristof looked at the facts, that this was a person of interest, and made opinions based on facts, I don’t see what the claim is,” she said. “If [Hatfill] has anything here, it is a privacy act case against the FBI.”

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