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Courtroom drama in 9/11 ´crackpot´ libel case

Dust from Ground Zero, a video of a collapsing building on repeat, and scientists discussing Galilei's theory of free fall. Copenhagen's 9/11 libel case court drama had it all. Decision due in four weeks time

Journalist Søren K. Villemoes seemed confident coming out of the courtroom. But his counterpart, the University of Copenhagen’s former associate professor Niels Harrit, seemed unhappy with the performance of his star witness.

This is my short conclusion coming out of a four-hour long court drama in the Eastern High Court (Østre Landsret) in Copenhagen. The issue? Whether it was in the realm of press freedoms of speech for a journalist from Weekendavisen to call Niels Harrit, associate professor, a ‘crackpot’ [in Danish, ‘tosse’, ed.] in an opinion piece. The wider issue is whether the World Trade Center building collapsed from fire, or by a controlled demolition, as Niels Harrit has argued.

Søren Villemoes was not surprised about what went on in the courtroom. “I would be surprised if this higher court does not confirm the lower court’s ruling after today,” he said to the University Post subsequent to the proceedings.

Physicist testimony did not support Harrit

Niels Harrit had called in a man who used to be one of his starkest opponents, professor of theoretical physics Per Hedegård from the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute as a witness on his own behalf. But his testimony ended in a debate over whether the court could understand a deeper debate about the definition of free fall. A discussion of procedure in other words. Per Hedegård’s testimony appeared not to support Niels Harrit’s claim that WTC7 could not have been a free fall but a controlled explosion.

He even implied that the speed of the building’s collapse could theoretically be above free fall due to the complex nature of the energy waves, undermining the clear-cut nature of Niels Harrit’s argument. All in all, his testimony did not appear to support Niels Harrit: When Per Hedegård was questioned by Niels Harrit about the data in an analysis by Niels Harrit and associates, he told the court that the nano-thermite trace content in WTC dust would imply more than 60 tons of un-exploded material prior to a detonation.

To the University Post subsequent to the stand-off in court Niels Harrit said that his old opponent, then witness on his behalf, in effect had “run away, scared”. Niels Harrit confirmed that he had not discussed what he would testify beforehand with Per Hedegård.

Harrit his own advocate

A better witness (from Niels Harrit’s point of view) was architect Jan Utzon who told the court that all of the buildings such as WTC 7 that had been through fires, had always burnt out without collapsing.

The actual issue at stake in this court hearing was whether the Weekendavisen journalist’s statement that lumps Niels Harrit together with creationists and holocaust deniers was libellous.

Here Niels Harrit, brought in extra evidence in the form of Søren K. Villemoes’ own Facebook page subsequent to the trial in the lower court. Here he wrote that he regretted attacking “an outcast”, meaning Niels Harrit.

Regret, or just pity?

Niels Harrit, who was his own advocate in court, aggressively cross-examined him as a witness, prompting at one point the presiding judge to butt in, and exhort Niels Harrit to uphold a “positive and respectful tone.”

Niels Harrit asked journalist Willemoes in court whether his Facebook statement was indirectly admitting that he regretted the opinion piece. That he regretted calling him a ‘crackpot’.

Søren K. Villemoes maintained that his use of ‘Crackpot’ was not against him as a person, but against his ideas, and that his Facebook comment did nothing to change that.

“Why an outcast,” prodded Niels Harrit

“To be honest? Because I had pity on you,” Søren K. Villemoes retorted.

The court will rule in four weeks time.

Read a more detailed overview of the case here.

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