December 16, 2002 2:48 PM PST

U.S. court says no to Web libel lawsuit

Less than a week after Australia's high court issued a ruling suggesting that online publishers are fair game for libel suits anywhere their content appears, a U.S. federal court has veered in the opposite direction.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said two Connecticut newspapers could not be sued for libel in a Virginia court on the basis of allegedly defamatory articles posted on their Web sites.

In the decision, released last Friday, a three-judge panel unanimously tossed out a Virginia prison warden's lawsuit against the Hartford Courant and the New Haven Advocate.

That ruling breaks with last week's decision in Australia, which sent shock waves through the world of online publishing by saying that the U.S.-based Dow Jones news organization would have to defend a defamation lawsuit brought by a Melbourne, Australia, businessman in an Australian court. Barron's magazine, a Dow Jones publication, had published the allegedly libelous material on servers in New Jersey, on its subscribers-only Web site.

In the 4th Circuit case, the court said the key question was whether the newspapers intended "to direct their Web site content, which included certain articles discussing conditions in a Virginia prison, to a Virginia audience," and concluded the answer was definitely no. Instead of targeting Virginians, the court ruled, the papers' Web sites were designed to be useful to residents of Connecticut, with information about weather and state politics, and local classified ads.

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

The contrast demonstrates how unsettled some areas of technology law remain. The two courts appear to have reached different conclusions: The U.S. ruling focused on whether the pair of newspapers had a commercial presence in Virginia, while the Australian high court worried more about where the harm from allegedly libelous material would be felt.

The Connecticut papers published a series of articles and columns on the state's controversial practice of transferring inmates in overcrowded prisons to a "supermax" prison in Big Stone Gap, Va. Warden Stanley Young was not mentioned in any of the reports, but one column criticized his prison in no uncertain terms. Young claimed the coverage was defamatory and sued the newspapers, their editors and the reporters in Virginia.

Last Friday's decision only addressed the issue of jurisdiction, not the merits of whether Young's claims of being defamed were valid or not.

 

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