February 7, 2001
Irate Airline Passenger Can Keep Web Site Critical of Airline
Alitalia Drops Suit Against Man Whose Lost Luggage Prompted Him to Establish www.alitaliasucks.com
WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a victory for First Amendment rights on the Internet, Alitalia has dropped its lawsuit against an irate airline passenger whose lost luggage complaint prompted him to set up a Web site critical of the airline, www.alitaliasucks.com.
The airline sued in December, accusing the passenger of violating a 1999 anti-cybersquatting law.
The airline had asked the court to order passenger William Porta to dismantle his site and prohibit him from using the Alitalia name in any Internet domain name or registering such a domain name with any search engines. Public Citizen intervened in the case because of its long interest in defending people's First Amendment rights.
"Alitalia brought this case assuming that it could push an individual consumer around," said Paul Alan Levy, the attorney with Public Citizen Litigation Group who defended the passenger. "This man initially felt intimidated and probably would have dropped the matter. Once we stepped in, though, the airline apparently realized it had no case and cut its losses. I'm pleased that we taught a very big company not to mess around with the First Amendment."
Added Porta, the New York state business owner who launched the Web site, "This great country was founded so that the liberties of common patriotic citizens like me could not be steam-rolled by a bunch of thugs with money and power. I will continue to examine the rules and assert myself vigorously until I am satisfied that enough people are aware of what Alitalia has done."
The case began when Porta, who runs a gift delivery business, traveled to India last year to be best man in a friend's wedding. When en route, however, Alitalia lost a bag containing his clothes. Porta attended a black tie event in the two-day old casual clothes he traveled in, and his hosts had to scramble right before their wedding to find suitable attire for him. Porta sent a letter of complaint to the airline in October, but the airline failed to live up to its promises for compensation, he said. In fact, to this day, Porta has not been paid for his lost luggage.
In December, Porta established "www.alitaliasucks.com," on which he posted a copy of his letter. The airline then sued Porta in U.S. District Court, the Southern District of New York, alleging that he was violating trademark law and the 1999 Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, passed in response to a rash of people snapping up Internet domain names using trademarked names of companies and organizations.
Trademark infringements occur when a company's name is used in a misleading way to profit from consumer confusion about whether the company has sponsored the message. This clearly didn't apply in this case, Public Citizen told the court. Porta's site carries no advertising, sells no goods and doesn't link to any commercial sites. And Alitalia's claim that Porta broke the anti-cybersquatting law also was misguided, Public Citizen said. When they wrote the law, congressional lawmakers specifically noted that they did not intend to enable companies to sue people who establish Web sites for the purpose of commenting on companies.
"The law is quite clear about the First Amendment rights of consumers," Levy said. "In fact, the law specifically protects the information Mr. Porta posted."
On a recent Minnesota Public Radio show, an Alitalia spokesperson admitted that the suit was brought to prevent customers from finding Porta's site through search engines. At a recent hearing, the judge indicated the company ought to consider settling. The company, however, made no settlement offer. Late last week, Judge Richard Berman told both sides he wanted them to return to court and demanded that a top company official, such as the president, show up and explain why the company brought the case. Late Tuesday, before the hearing could be held, Alitalia dismissed the suit.
Porta was also represented by Nina Morrison and John Cuti of Emery Cuti Brinckerhoff & Abady PC in New York City.