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Hatfill v. New York Times Co.
United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
416 F.3d 320 (2005)
In fall 2001, news organizations and members of Congress received envelopes containing lethal anthrax powder. Contact with these letters led to the deaths of five people. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began working to identify and arrest the culprit. Nicholas Kristof, an editorial columnist employed by the New York Times Company (the Times) (defendant), criticized the FBI’s handling of the case, particularly its investigation of a person he referred to as Mr. Z. Kristof believed that circumstantial evidence connected Mr. Z to the anthrax mailings and thought the FBI was not pursuing Mr. Z vigorously enough. The columns included various assertions about Mr. Z. Kristof wrote that federal investigators and many scientists suspected Mr. Z was involved in the anthrax mailings; Mr. Z was familiar with powdered anthrax and current on anthrax vaccinations; Mr. Z failed multiple polygraph examinations; trained bloodhounds had responded to Mr. Z, his girlfriend, their apartments, and nothing else; and Mr. Z was likely involved in prior anthrax incidents. The columns did not highlight any other suspects and provided information that could only refer to Mr. Z. In August 2002, Kristof identified Mr. Z as scientist Dr. Steven Hatfill (plaintiff). Hatfill sued under Virginia defamation law, arguing that the columns defamed him by implying he was responsible for the five anthrax-related murders. The district court dismissed the defamation claim because it found the columns were not capable of being reasonably understood as accusing Hatfill of mailing the anthrax or showing Kristof intended to accuse Hatfill of doing so. Hatfill appealed.
Rule of Law
Holding and Reasoning (Shedd, J.)
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