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Court limits jurisdiction in Internet suits

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Court limits jurisdiction in Internet suits

  • A federal appeals court says Columbia University cannot be sued in Texas for statements posted on its Web site that had no direct connection to the state.

Jan. 2, 2003 — In the third major case to come down on the topic of Internet libel jurisdiction in recent weeks, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) held Dec. 31 that Oliver “Buck” Revell, a former FBI official, cannot bring a libel suit in Texas over an article posted on a Web site operated by Columbia University.

Revell had attempted to sue Hart G. W. Lidov, a Harvard medical school professor, and Columbia University over an article Lidov wrote about the terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.

Although Lidov, a pathology and neurology specialist in Boston, does not teach at Columbia, his article was posted on an Internet message board hosted by the university.

The article charged members of the Reagan administration with having previous knowledge of the terrorist attack and wilfully failing to stop it, according to court papers. Lidov accused Revell of being involved in the conspiracy and said Revell, aware of the planned attack, made sure his son, who was booked on flight 103, changed flights.

Revell brought suit in Texas, where he resided at the time the article was posted. He claimed harm to his reputation in Texas and sought several millions of dollars in damages, according to court papers.

But the court said Revell’s suit could not be brought in Texas.

As a general matter, according to legal principles of jurisdiction, courts may decide a lawsuit only when the case relates in some way to the state where the court is located.

Here, the article contained no reference to Texas and was not aimed specifically at Texas readers. Columbia’s Web site had less than twenty subscribers from Texas in 2000 and 2001, according to the court.

Because “Texas was not the focal point of the article or the harm suffered,” a court in Texas could not exercise jurisdiction over Revell’s suit, the court said.

“If you are going to pick a fight in Texas, it is reasonable to expect that it be settled there,” the court elaborated. But “we look to the geographic focus of the article, not the bite of the defamation, the blackness of the calumny, or who provoked the fight,” to determine where the suit should be brought.

A federal appeals court in Virginia used similar reasoning in a Dec. 13 decision, holding that a Virginia court did not have jurisdiction over two Connecticut papers that allegedly libeled a prison warden on their Web sites.

An Australian court came to an opposite result Dec. 10, finding that the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s could be sued in Australia over an article that was written in the United States and distributed over the Internet.

Columbia’s attorney, Charles L. Babcock, said the Fifth Circuit reached the right decision under the law. He said the court’s “exceptionally thorough” opinion helped to clarify the legal principles relating to Internet libel jurisdiction.

(Revell v. Lidov, Charles L. Babcock of the law firm Jackson Walker, LLP, Dallas) WT

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