Self-promotion, especially on a matter of public interest, makes it very tough to win a libel case. That’s the clear, if hardly new, message from the 4th Circuit in Hatfill v. The New York Times Co.
The suit was based on a series of five columns in 2002 by Times writer Nicholas Kristof taking the FBI to task for not thoroughly investigating Dr. Steven J. Hatfill as the source of letters containing anthrax that were mailed in September and October 2001. Five people died from exposure to the toxin.
U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton in Alexandria granted summary judgment for Kristof and The Times after ruling that Hatfill, an expert on biological weapons, was a limited-purpose public figure. As such, Hatfill had to show that Kristof wrote the columns with reckless disregard for the truth, and the evidence demonstrated that Kristof believed that Hatfill was the prime suspect and had some information to support that belief, Hilton held.
Writing for the 4th Circuit panel, Judge Paul V. Niemeyer agreed. One can become a limited-purpose public figure by attempting to influence the outcome of a public controversy, Neimeyer noted. Hatfill attempted to limit the controversy to “who committed the anthrax attacks in 2001,” while The Times contended that the controversy was much broader – the threat from bioterrorism and the nation’s lack of preparation for it.
Niemeyer agreed that the broader topic was the one at issue and emphasized that Hatfill had sought out reporters, researchers and government agencies to offer his opinion on it. Hatfill therefore fit so squarely in the category of limited-purpose public figure that the panel had no need to consider Hilton’s alternative findings that he also was public official and an involuntary public figure, Niemeyer said.
The 4th Circuit opinion came less than three weeks after the federal government agreed to pay Hatfill $5.82 million to settle his claim that the FBI and the Justice Department had invaded his privacy and ruined his career in the anthrax investigation.
By Alan Cooper