Falwell goes to court over parody Web site

AP, Nov. 26, 2002
By ADRIENNE SCHWISOW, Associated Press Writer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A lawsuit filed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell against a parody Web site should be dismissed because the Baptist minister cannot disprove the site’s claim that he is a false prophet, lawyers argued Tuesday.

The lawyers for Web site operator Gary Cohn also argued that the Virginia court where Falwell filed the lawsuit lacks jurisdiction because Cohn runs the site out of Highland Park, Ill., and has no interaction with Falwell, who lives in Lynchburg.

“The whole context of this Web page is a statement of opinion, not fact,” said Paul Levy, a lawyer for a consumer advocacy group, Public Citizen. “What is the fact that was allegedly stated falsely?”

Falwell wants a federal judge to shut down www.jerryfalwell.com as libelous and a trademark infringement on his name.

The minister specifically objects to a portion of the site that refers to him as the third false prophet of the 20th century. The first two, the site states, were cult leaders Jim Jones and David Koresh.

“People who are looking for ammunition against Dr. Falwell, they’ll eat this up,” said John Midlen, Falwell’s attorney.

U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon questioned whether the remarks on the Web site constitute libel against Falwell. He pointed out that they appear to be opinion and asked how they could be proven wrong.

He suggested that the law allows more freedom to say insulting things about public figures, like Falwell, than about private citizens.

Falwell, founder of Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, also contends that his name is a trademark crucial to his businesses and that Cohn’s Web site illegally ripped it off. Falwell does not have a registered trademark.

Cohn’s attorney countered that the law does not prevent a noncommercial Web site from using Falwell’s name.

Cohn’s lawyers, including an ACLU attorney, said Cohn cannot be sued in Virginia because he doesn’t have any connection to the state.

“In this case, there is no engaging in business or other interactions in this state,” Levy said. “A person who merely places material on the Internet is not subject to jurisdiction in each state where the material appeared.”

Midlen argued that someone who is out of state but has interactions in Virginia falls under Virginia jurisdiction.

“The amount of interactivity needed is negligible and I think we have more than enough,” Midlen said.

He said if Moon throws out the lawsuit because Virginia does not have jurisdiction, he will refile the case in Chicago.

The judge did not indicate when he might rule.

Neither Falwell nor Cohn attended the hearing.

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