Va. Court Throws Out Internet Libel Suit

By: Larry O’Dell, Associated Press Writer

(AP) A federal appeals court threw out a Virginia prison warden’s lawsuit against two Connecticut newspapers on Friday, saying articles posted on the Internet were not aimed at a Virginia audience.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 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 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 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.”

The decision came three days after Australia’s highest court ruled that an Australian businessman may sue Dow Jones & Co. for an article posted from New Jersey but accessible in Australia.

Both courts based their reasonings on targeting, but differed in how they defined it, said Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor who tracks Internet rulings around the world. “We have U.S. courts that looked largely at a commercial presence and the intended presence, while you got the Australian court more concerned about where the harm was felt,” Geist said.

Stephanie S. Abrutyn, attorney for the Connecticut 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.

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.”

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