|NMU||VIRGINIA||Libel||Dec 13, 2002|
Warden can’t sue Connecticut papers in Virginia over Web stories
- Federal appeals court says courts in Virginia do not have jurisdiction over Connecticut papers and reporters who allegedly libeled a prison warden on the papers’ Web sites.
In a key case on the increasingly important topic of Internet jurisdiction, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) decided Dec. 13 that a Virginia prison warden cannot bring a libel suit in Virginia over articles that appeared on the Web sites of two Connecticut newspapers.
The articles, published by The Hartford Courant and the New Haven Advocate, concerned Connecticut’s practice of sending its overflow of inmates to Virginia prisons. The papers reported on the conditions in the Virginia prisons, noting that transferred inmates had complained of unnecessary use of force and racist attitudes.
One article, in the Advocate, mentioned a class action lawsuit that some inmates had filed against Virginia prison warden Stanley Young. The prisoners alleged substandard conditions at a facility supervised by Young. The article also reported that Young maintained Confederate Civil War memorabilia in his office.
The three columns that appeared in the Hartford Courant on the subject did not mention Young but discussed problems at the Virginia sites.
Young filed suit in a Virginia federal court, claiming the newspapers had defamed him by implying he was racist and abusive.
A trial court held in August 2001 that Young’s lawsuit could proceed in Virginia, despite the fact that the papers and all of their reporting activities were in Connecticut. The court reasoned that jurisdiction in Virginia was proper because the articles were on Web sites “accessible twenty-four hours a day in Virginia.”
The appeals court’s ruling reverses that decision, holding that jurisdiction in Virginia was improper, because the Connecticut papers did not have enough contacts with the state of Virginia to allow a libel suit to be brought there.
Both the Advocate and the Courant are aimed at a local, Connecticut readership, and the articles themselves were intended for Connecticut residents, the court found.
None of the reporting for the articles was done in Virginia. The Advocate had no subscribers in Virginia, and the Courant had only eight.
“It appear that these newspapers maintain their websites to serve local readers in Connecticut, to expand the reach of their papers within their local markets, and to provide their local markets with a place for classified ads,” the court said.
Although the Internet sites are accessible all over the country, “the websites are not designed to attract or serve a Virginia audience,” the court said.
The court’s opinion was based on a Virginia law concerning jurisdiction and constitutional principles of due process.
Stephanie S. Abrutyn, attorney for the Tribune Company, which publishes the two papers, said the defendants were “very pleased with the decision” and believed the court made the right decision on a controversial issue.
(Young v. New Haven Advocate; Media counsel: Robert D. Lystad, Baker & Hostetler, LLP, Washington, D.C.) — WT
© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press