A federal appellate court has tossed out the lawsuit by Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich sued Rep. John Murtha for defamation after the congressman said that his Marine unit killed Iraqi women and children “in cold blood” in Haditha.
Wuterich’s, 26, lawsuit was filed after Murtha (a former Marine) cited stress and other factors in the alleged massacre. Ultimately, the case did not turn on the merits. Truth is a defense to defamation and the facts of the massacre have been hotly debated.
Members of Congress generally are protected under the “speech or debate” clause in Article I, Section 6, of the Constitution. However, the privilege protects legislative proceedings and generally does not apply to news releases, speeches and other public comments. This was the holding in Hutchinson v. Proxmire, when Sen. Proxmire was found to be acting outside of the clause in making media comments regarding his golden fleece award.
The D.C. Circuit ruling is based on the 1988 Westfall Act, which gives federal employees immunity from lawsuits arising out of acts they undertake in the course of their official duties. The court reversed the decision of U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer who had refused to dismiss the suit last September.
Murtha still faces a lawsuit by Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt who has charged him with defamation and the denial of both due process and the right to a fair trial.
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