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ACLU asks court to throw out Jerry Falwell's Web site lawsuit

By The Associated Press

09.13.02

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Attorneys for an Illinois man whose Web sites ridicule the Rev. Jerry Falwell have asked a federal judge in Lynchburg, Va., to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the pastor that attempts to take control of the domain names.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which is representing Gary Cohn with consumer advocacy group Public Citizen of Washington D.C., said Sept. 9 that the site deserves the same First Amendment protection as cartoon editorials in newspapers and late-night comedy shows.

"What we're talking about is the right of a citizen to speak out to criticize a public figure," said Kent Willis, executive director of Virginia's ACLU. "Jerry Falwell is a very public figure."

Cohn, of Highland Park, Ill., created www.jerryfalwell.com and www.jerryfallwell.com last year in response to Falwell's public comments following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Falwell claimed feminists, homosexuals and abortion-rights advocates provoked God to "lift the curtain" of divine protection on America.

"I decided we can't just let someone say those things and get away with it," Cohn said in a telephone interview.

Falwell later apologized for his comments.

Falwell's lawyers now claim that Cohn's site, which spoofs the Lynchburg minister with cartoons and sardonic editorials, is libelous and illegally uses the pastor's trademark.

The World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, rejected a similar complaint in June, noting that Falwell never officially tried to trademark his name. Falwell later sued Cohn in federal court in Lynchburg, where Falwell's ministry is based.

John Midlen, a Chevy Chase, Md., lawyer who is representing Falwell, said despite the lack of legal documentation, the pastor has a common-law right to his name.

"This is principally a trademark case," Midlen said. "This guy is using 'Jerry Falwell' as his domain name. And that's a violation of the real Jerry Falwell's rights."

Midlen said Cohn also has libeled Falwell for comparing him to "false prophets," including the Rev. Jim Jones, who killed more than 900 people in 1978 by ordering them to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, and David Koresh, who led the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

"Jerry Falwell does not profess to be a prophet of any sort," Midlen said.

Cohn's lawyers also are arguing that Falwell has no right to bring the case in Virginia, since Cohn is not licensed to do business in Virginia and does not specifically target Virginia residents.

"The only reason Falwell filed suit in Virginia is because he lives there," Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy said in a statement. "Yet Falwell is hauling Cohn to a court hundreds of miles from Cohn's home.

"If the court were to hear this case, it would set a dangerous precedent. People who type their thoughts about public figures on a computer would think twice if they knew they would have to defend themselves at any spot on the globe where the figure happened to be."

Related

Minnesota high court: Internet critic can't be sued in Alabama
Unanimous decision overturns rulings in two lower courts that had upheld $25,000 judgment for Alabama scholar.  07.15.02

Parody defense falls flat in cybersquatting case
Federal appeals panel orders owner of People Eating Tasty Animals site to relinquish Web address to animal-rights group.  08.26.01

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