Judge dismisses Falwell Web lawsuit over jurisdictional issue
- Following recent precedent on Internet jurisdiction, a Virginia federal court threw out a case against a Web-site owner who parodied Jerry Falwell.
March 10, 2003 — A federal district court judge in Lynchburg Tuesday threw out a case against an Illinois man who operates the Web site www.jerryfalwell.com. The judge said the Virginia court did not have jurisdiction over the case.
Initiated by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in June 2002, the suit involved claims of libel, trademark violation, unfair competition and cybersquatting.
According to court papers, Web-site operator Gary Cohn established the site under the names www.jerryfalwell.com and www.jerryfallwell.com in 2001, following Falwell’s public comments suggesting that America’s tolerance of gays and lesbians was responsible for the attacks of September 11.
Both domain names lead to one site, which pokes fun at the reverend’s ultra-conservative political and religious views. According to the court, the main page of the site includes links to pages entitled “The Bible Code,” “False Prophets,” “How to follow the Bible,” and “Faith Ba$ed.”
Falwell filed a trademark complaint against Cohn with the World Intellectual Property Organization in February 2002. An arbitration panel unanimously rejected his complaint. Falwell then filed suit in the Western District of Virginia.
Federal Judge Norman K. Moon wrote that since the Web site is not aimed at a Virginia audience and does not contain content related specifically to Virginia, a Virginia court could not exercise jurisdiction over the claims.
Cohn, an Illinois resident, never lived in Virginia, did not own property there, and did not conduct business in the state. The content of his Web site is stored on a server in Illinois.
Moon based the dismissal on recent precedent out of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.). In Young v. New Haven Advocate, the appeals court held that a Virginia court did not have jurisdiction over two Connecticut newspapers who were sued for libel over content on their Web sites.
Moon said in his opinion that the Young case requires that a plaintiff “demonstrate a manifest intent to expressly target a Virginia audience” in order to bring suit in Virginia.
“The threat of being sued far from home for purely noncommercial, political speech would have a serious chilling effect. We are pleased that the court recognized that it would be unconstitutional for Falwell to force Cohn to appear in court in Virginia,” said attorney Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy organization. Public Citizen, along with the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, represented Cohn in the lawsuit.
(Falwell v. Cohn) — WT
© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press