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Jerry Falwell Attempts to Silence Critics From a Bully Pulpit

April 2, 2002

Jerry Falwell Attempts to Silence Critics From a Bully Pulpit

Preacher Should Not Be Allowed to Shut Down Web Site That Ridicules Him, Public Citizen Says

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Rev. Jerry Falwell’s attempts to shut down a Web site that uses his name in its address and parodies some of Falwell’s statements have the goal of bullying Internet posters and suppressing dissent, a response filed today by Public Citizen with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) says.

Illinois resident Gary Cohn maintains a non-commercial site under the domain names jerryfalwell.com and jerryfallwell.com. The site makes fun of Falwell for blaming the September 11 attacks on the supposed moral decline of America and parodies the way Falwell cites Bible verses to make moral judgments.

For example, in one section of the site, Cohn lists Bible verses that instruct followers to sell daughters into slavery, put to death anyone who works on the Sabbath and avoid touching the skin of a dead pig. He asks Falwell exactly how these laws should be followed and their punishments carried out.

Falwell filed a complaint with WIPO, an arbiter for Internet disputes. He argued that the site violates a common law trademark on his name and will disrupt his business interests by leading Internet users toward “false thinking” about the Bible. He also claims that even if the site is meant to be a parody, it isn’t funny.

“It doesn’t matter whether the site is funny or uses the Bible differently than Falwell would,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation group who filed the response for Cohn. “What’s important here is that Cohn has every right to use Falwell’s name when he is criticizing him, and he has every right to do that on the Internet.”

Falwell’s claim that he holds a trademark on his name because of his fame is insufficient because he doesn’t show that he has used his name as a trademark in the past, Public Citizen said in its filing. Further, trademark laws and precedent under the Uniform Dispute Resolution Process, an Internet dispute arbiter, recognize that site names often refer to the subject of the site and do not imply that the site is sponsored by the owner of that name – most obviously in fan sites and complaint sites.

“Falwell has tried and failed before to sue people who have made fun of him or criticized him, but it seems he hasn’t learned the lesson,” Levy said. “He should not be able to use his money and power to force non-commercial sites offering important social criticisms off the Web.”

Click here for a copy of the response. Public Citizen is involved in the case because it has a history of defending free speech on the Internet. To read more about this and other free speech cases, click here.