Newspaper Slander Case Reversed On Appeal

December 23, 2002

The ruling follows arguments presented in an amicus brief by law professors George Rutherglen and Robert O'Neil, who also directs the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville.

"Just putting a story on a newspaper web site will no longer be sufficient for specific jurisdiction," Rutherglen said. "Newspapers can feel more confident in posting stories so long as they are not targeting a particular audience in a distant forum."

Filing his case with the U.S. District Court for the Western District in Big Stone Gap, Warden Stanley Young claimed that the papers defamed him by portraying him as racist and allegedly indifferent to abuse of inmates by guards. Young sued The Hartford Courantand The New Haven Advocateafter they noted that he had Confederate Civil War memorabilia in his office and that Connecticut inmates housed there had written home complaining about cruelty by guards. In the Courant's story, Wallens Ridge was called a "cut-rate gulag."

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed a lower court's ruling that the warden could sue the papers in his home state since his reputation was harmed there because the newspapers posted their stories on the Internet.

The legal question before the appeals court was over personal jurisdiction: whether Young's case could be brought in a Virginia court. The fact that Virginians could see the stories did not prove that the Connecticut newspapers considered Virginians as an intended audience, the three-judge appeals panel said. "The facts establish that the newspaper's web sites, as well as the articles in question were aimed at a Connecticut audience. The newspapers did not post materials on the Internet with the manifest intent of targeting Virginia readers. Accordingly the newspapers could not have 'reasonably anticipate[d] being haled into court [in Virginia] to answer for the truth of the statements made in their articles.' In sum the newspapers do not have sufficient Internet contacts with Virginia to permit the district court to exercise specific jurisdiction over them," wrote Judge M. Blane Michael in a unanimous decision.

The ruling was handed down shortly after a decision by a judge in Australia that allowed an Australian man to sue Dow Jones over an article posted on a web site in New Jersey.

Rutherglen and O'Neil wrote on behalf of several newspapers, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, Dow Jones and Company (publishers of the Wall Street Journal) and the Hearst Corporation, who approached the Center for the Protection of Free Expression for legal representation.

"We represented a large group of newspaper who were concerned about being sued in distant locations and in hostile forums," Rutherglen said. "The Fourth Circuit adopted the basic thrust of our argument. This is the first circuit court decision that recognizes limits on personal jurisdiction over newspapers through the Internet. I think the case will be widely cited in such cases in the future."

Young will have to file his case in a Connecticut court if he wants the merits considered, Rutherglen said, adding that it would probably be prohibitively expensive to do so and that he would face a forum less sympathetic to his claim than one in southwestern Virginia.

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