WASHINGTON, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- A federal appeals court Friday refused to re-instate a defamation suit brought by one of the Navy's first two women combat pilots.
Retired Navy Lt. Carey Dunai Lohrenz had sued the Center for Military Readiness and its founder, Elaine Donnelly, for labeling her incompetent and contending that she and another woman carrier pilot were allowed to meet lower standards than men in the mid-1990s for political reasons.
The lawsuit also named News World Communications, doing business as The Washington Times, United Press International's sister company, among others.
Though News World Communications settled with Lohnrenz before the conclusion of the process, a federal judge later dismissed the suit against the remaining media, and ruled for the remaining defendants without hearing argument, saying Lohrenz was a public figure.
Lohrenz's fellow pilot, Lt. Kara Hultgreen, was killed while trying to land on the USS Lincoln, part of the Pacific Fleet, in 1994. An investigation determined that the F-14 did not signal Hultgreen that one of its engines had failed.
The appeals court said after Hultgreen's death, Donnelly, a long-term critic of women in combat, complained about the training and the competence of the two women pilots in letters to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Donnelly used information supplied by Lohrenz's instructor, according to the panel.
In her lawsuit, Lohrenz complained that CMR had published at least four defamatory articles about her, identifying her as "Pilot B." News reports subsequently published her name, and Donnelly used Lohrenz's name in a later news release.
Lohrenz said her instructors had been giving her above-average ratings until publication of The Donnelly Report, then gave her only average ratings after the report was published in 1995. She said she was eventually forced to lose her status as a Navy combat pilot, and sought $50,000 in the suit.
After the suit was filed in 1997, a federal judge ruled for Donnelly and CMR, saying the report was protected by the First Amendment because it was criticism of a "voluntary" public figure.
Lohhrenz appealed, but a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the judge's ruling Friday.
"Because Lohrenz's evidence shows that she chose the F-14 combat jet while well aware of the public controversy over women in combat roles," the panel said, "her challenge to the ruling that she was a voluntary limited-purpose public figure once the Navy assigned her to the F-14 combat aircraft rings hollow: She chose combat training in the F-14 and when, as a result of that choice, she became one of the first two women combat pilots, a central role in the public controversy came with the territory."
The panel said the ruling was not a judgment on Lohrenz's competence.
"Our conclusion about Lt. Lohrenz's public figure status does not suggest that she was not a good Naval aviator trying to do her job, and it does not penalize her for acting with 'professionalism,'" the panel said.
(No. 02-5294, Lohrenz vs. Donnelly and CMR et al)