Tuesday, June 04, 2002

Libel on the Internet?

Court hears newspapers' appeal over whether they can be sued out-of-state over Internet articles

Associated Press Writer

        RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court heard arguments Monday on whether newspapers that post stories on the Internet can be sued for libel in states outside their local market.

        A Virginia prison warden sued two Connecticut newspapers he says falsely depicted him as racist in articles about alleged mistreatment of Connecticut inmates who were sent to Virginia to relieve prison crowding.

        The Hartford Courant and The New Haven Advocate wrote their articles for a Connecticut audience and scrutinized that state's policy of exporting inmates, argued Robert D. Lystad, the newspapers' attorney.

        Newspapers will be reluctant to post articles on the Internet if they can be sued for libel in states where they have no other significant presence, Lystad said.

        The attorney for warden Stanley Young argued Virginia was the proper venue because the articles focused on events there and the damage to his reputation occurred in Virginia.

        “They knew any harm he suffered would take place in Virginia,” attorney Stuart Collins said.

        The three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is being asked to overturn a judge's decision allowing the warden to sue the newspapers in federal court in Big Stone Gap, Va.

        Lystad said there is no way to determine how many people read the articles on the Internet in Virginia, where the daily Courant has only eight print subscribers and the weekly Advocate has none.

        The consequence of opening newspapers to libel lawsuits wherever their articles can be accessed on the Web is self-censorship, Lystad said.

        “If writing articles on the issue of shipping prisoners to Virginia means they are subject to jurisdiction of Virginia, they might not be written at all,” he told the judges.

        An attorney for the Tribune Company, which owns the two Connecticut papers, said the judges' ruling could have broad implications for the industry.

        “This case has the potential to be the first federal appellate case on whether someone can be sued anywhere a Web site is read,” attorney Stephanie S. Abrutyn said after the hearing.

        Collins said outside court that newspaper editors must carefully weigh the consequences of what they publish in the Internet age.

        “Newspapers want the benefit of being read worldwide but not the responsibility that comes with it,” he said.

        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.”

        The appeals court typically takes several weeks to rule on a case after hearing arguments.


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