March 5, 2003 2:04 PM PST

Court dismisses Falwell domain name case

A federal judge in Virginia has dismissed Jerry Falwell's attempt to gain control of the Web address bearing his name, saying the court does not have jurisdiction over the matter.

Falwell had claimed Illinois resident Gary Cohn violated trademarks by using the and Web addresses to post parodies of the televangelist. Cohn poked fun at Falwell, who blamed the Sept. 11 attacks on gays, pro-choice groups and others, comparing his views to those of people such as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Public Citizen, a nonprofit group representing Cohn, had argued that Cohn was only exercising his free speech rights to parody public figures. What's more, the group argued, a court in Virginia could not have jurisdiction over the case because Cohn did not live in, work in or target people in the state.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon agreed that his court did not have jurisdiction over the matter because Cohn's site is not aimed at a Virginia audience.

"Instead it addresses a national audience, discussing such things as Reverend Falwell's reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative," Moon wrote in his decision. "Mr. Cohn's site does not discuss anything that specifically relates to Virginia."

Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy praised the ruling.

"The threat of being sued far from home for purely noncommercial, political speech would have a serious chilling effect," Levy said in a statement. "We are pleased that the court recognized that it would be unconstitutional for Falwell to force Cohn to appear in court in Virginia."

Representatives of Falwell did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

The suit was Falwell's second attempt to take the domains from Cohn. Before filing the suit, Falwell appealed to the Uniform Dispute Resolution Procedure, a group charged with resolving trademark battles by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees domain names. Last June a UDRP panel rejected Falwell's claim, saying the sites were "a legitimate noncommercial or fair use of the domain name." Falwell filed the complaint in federal district court a few weeks later.


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