March 5, 2003
Jerry Falwell Denied in Second Attempt to Silence Online Critic
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Agreeing with Public Citizen’s contention that it had no jurisdiction over the Internet speech rights of an Illinois resident who built a Web site criticizing Jerry Falwell, a federal court today dismissed a lawsuit brought by the televangelist in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia.
The decision by United States District Judge Norman Moon marks Falwell’s second loss in a legal attempt to shut down the critic’s Web site, which parodies Falwell and his statements about the responsibility of gays for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, among other things.
The site, at www.jerryfalwell.com and www.jerryfallwell.com, pokes fun at Falwell’s advocacy of Biblical literalism and his penchant for giving advice. Another page purports to discover a biblical code showing that Falwell is a false prophet.
After the site went up in 2001, Falwell’s attorney demanded that the site’s creator, Illinois resident Gary Cohn, turn over the domain names to Falwell. Cohn refused. Falwell then filed a complaint against Cohn with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), alleging trademark violations, even though Falwell had never registered his name as a trademark. Public Citizen represented Cohn in that proceeding as well.
After the WIPO rejected Falwell’s claims, Falwell sued Cohn in June 2002 in the U.S. District Court’s Western District of Virginia, alleging trademark violations and libel.
Cohn lives in Illinois, is not licensed to do business in Virginia, has no office or employees there, and owns no property in Virginia. Cohn’s message in no way targets Virginia residents. Registration of domain names with a Virginia company also is insufficient to establish jurisdiction, Public Citizen had argued.
“The threat of being sued far from home for purely noncommercial, political speech would have a serious chilling effect. We are pleased that the court recognized that it would be unconstitutional for Falwell to force Cohn to appear in court in Virginia,” said Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy.
Rebecca Glenberg of the ACLU of Virginia also represented Cohn in the case. For the court’s decision, click here.