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Warden can't sue for libel in home state, appeals panel rules

By The Associated Press

12.16.02

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RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court has thrown out a Virginia prison warden's lawsuit against two Connecticut newspapers, saying articles posted on the Internet were not aimed at a Virginia audience.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Dec. 13 reversed a lower court's ruling that the warden could sue in his home state because that is where he claimed his reputation was damaged.

Stanley Young claimed The Hartford Courant and the New Haven Advocate falsely depicted him as a racist in articles about alleged mistreatment of Connecticut inmates who were sent to Virginia to relieve prison crowding.

The articles were posted on the newspapers' Web sites. The fact that the Internet postings can be viewed by Virginians as well as others was not enough to support filing the lawsuit in the federal court in Big Stone Gap, Va., the three-judge appeals panel ruled.

"The facts in this case establish that the newspapers' Web sites, as well as the articles in question, were aimed at a Connecticut audience," Judge M. Blane Michael wrote in the unanimous opinion. "The newspapers did not post materials on the Internet with the manifest intent of targeting Virginia readers."

Stephanie S. Abrutyn, attorney for the newspapers, said she was pleased that the court ruled "that the principles of due process and jurisdiction should not be applied any differently to the Internet than they have throughout the history of this country."

She added: "We think that had it gone the other way, it would have had a chilling effect on speech on the Internet."

Young's lawyer, Stuart Collins, was out of his office and unavailable for comment.

The ruling came three days after Australia's highest court ruled that mining magnate Joseph Gutnick can file a defamation suit against Dow Jones & Co. in that country over an article posted on a Web site based in New Jersey.

Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor who tracks Internet cases, said the Virginia and Australia rulings are not as opposite as they seem. Both courts said jurisdiction depends on whether a specific geographic audience was targeted, he said.

"In the Australian case, it is easier to make the case that Dow Jones targets Australia," Geist said. Showing that the Connecticut papers targeted Virginia, where they have virtually no readership, was much more difficult, he said.

Geist said the Dec. 13 ruling "provides further guidance, particularly for newspapers and publishers who have an online presence, on how they can box in their liability."

Connecticut newspapers closely followed the transfer of hundreds of inmates, most of them black and Hispanic, to Virginia prisons. Newspapers reported inmate advocates' concerns about harsh conditions at Wallens Ridge State Prison, a maximum-security lockup.

Young, who is white, claimed in his lawsuit that some of the articles suggested he "not only tolerates but encourages abuse by his guards." He argued that filing the lawsuit in Virginia was proper because the newspapers knew the articles would expose him to public contempt and ridicule where he lived and worked.

"The focus of the articles, however, was the Connecticut prisoner transfer policy and its impact on the transferred prisoners and their families back home in Connecticut," Michael wrote. "The articles reported on and encouraged a public debate in Connecticut about whether the transfer policy was sound or practical for that state and its citizens."

Previous

Internet case tests whether out-of-state newspapers can be sued for libel
Federal appeals panel hears arguments in Virginia prison warden's attempt to sue Connecticut papers over online articles.  06.04.02

Related

Australia's high court gives man go-ahead to sue U.S. publication for libel
Analysts believe ruling against Dow Jones & Co. in Internet defamation case could set precedent for courts, affect publishers and Web sites around the world.  12.11.02

Downloading a free press: the new rules of libel
By Ken Paulson Question of which court should hear online-libel case will have real consequences for quality, quantity, scope of news reporting worldwide.  01.12.03

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