By: Todd Shields
A law known as Virginia’s “long-arm statute” is reaching out to grab Connecticut newspapers that wrote about Virginia on their Web sites. Media lawyers say that if the statute’s grip is not broken, newspapers just about everywhere could face lawsuits filed from just about anywhere.
More than two dozen newspaper companies and other media organizations on Jan. 23 asked the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., to overturn a ruling that would place The Hartford Courant, a daily, and the New Haven Advocate, an alternative weekly, in the dock in federal court in Big Stone Gap, Va.
The newspapers — both Tribune Co. properties — in 2000 wrote about conditions facing Connecticut inmates sent to prisons in southwestern Virginia. Warden Stanley Young sued, saying the articles implied he is racist.
Last August, U.S. Senior District Judge Glen M. Williams ruled Young could sue in Virginia. The articles were “accessible 24 hours a day in Virginia” via the newspapers’ Web sites, Williams wrote. “Any harm suffered by Young from the circulation of these articles on the Internet would occur primarily in Virginia,” Williams wrote in his 27-page opinion. The judge cited cases that held a corporation liable for sending letters into a state and that held Hustler magazine could be sued for libel in New Hampshire, in part because the magazine is marketed there.
Media lawyers say the Connecticut papers make no effort to market themselves or their Web sites in southwestern Virginia. They have cited other cases, including a 1998 decision that a New Orleans police officer could not use Louisiana courts to sue the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, even though its Web site can be viewed in Louisiana.
“If [Williams’] opinion stands, then every reporter, every newspaper, every person that has a Web site is open to being dragged into court all over the country,” said Stephanie S. Abrutyn, a Tribune Co. lawyer.
The appeals court has not set a hearing date.