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The Supreme Court refused Monday 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 people and sickened 17 not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, 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 Ashcroft and others. A federal judge had thrown out Hatfill’s lawsuit against The New York Times over 2002 columns by writer Nicholas Kristof that faulted the FBI for failing to thoroughly investigate 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,” Washington lawyer Paul M. Smith wrote in the groups’ filing. Hatfill’s attorney, Christopher Wright, said that the reporting by Kristof was reckless, with multiple errors, including the claim that 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 mailroom, forcing the building’s closure for a week in October 2001. The case returns to federal court in Alexandria, Va., where 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 Hatfill of the murders. The case is The New York Times v. Hatfill, 05-897. Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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