- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 4, 2002

RICHMOND Some newspapers will be reluctant to post articles on the Internet if they can be sued for libel in states where they have no other significant presence, an attorney for two Connecticut papers told a federal appeals court yesterday.
Robert D. Lystad urged a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a judge's decision allowing the warden of Wallens Ridge State Prison to sue two Connecticut newspapers in federal court in Big Stone Gap, Va.
Warden Stanley Young says the Hartford Courant and the New Haven Advocate portrayed him as a racist in articles about accusations of mistreatment of Connecticut inmates sent to Wallens Ridge to relieve prison crowding in their home state.
"They knew any harm he suffered would take place in Virginia," said Mr. Young's attorney, Stuart Collins.
He said the articles focused on what was happening in Virginia, and that is where the damage to Mr. Young's reputation occurred. Those factors make Virginia the proper venue for the libel lawsuit, Mr. Collins told the appeals court.
Mr. Lystad argued that the articles were written for a Connecticut audience and scrutinized that state's policy of exporting inmates.
"We don't think the focal point of the story is Virginia, and it's certainly not about the warden," he said.
Mr. Lystad said there is no way to determine how many people read the articles online in Virginia, where the Courant daily has only eight print subscribers, and the Advocate weekly has none.
The consequence of opening newspapers to libel lawsuits wherever their articles can be accessed on the Web is self-censorship, Mr. Lystad said.
"If writing articles on the issue of shipping prisoners to Virginia means they are subject to jurisdiction of Virginia, they might not be written at all," he told the judges.
An attorney for the Tribune Company, which owns the two papers, said the judges' ruling could have broad implications for the industry.
"This case has the potential to be the first federal appellate case on whether someone can be sued anywhere a Web site is read," lawyer Stephanie S. Abrutyn said in an interview after the hearing.
Connecticut newspapers closely followed the transfer of hundreds of inmates, most of them black and Hispanic, to Virginia prisons. An inmate from Bridgeport, Conn., hanged himself in his cell at Wallens Ridge, and three prisoners from the state were shot with rubber bullets by guards trying to break up a scuffle at the maximum-security lockup.
Newspapers reported inmate advocates' concerns about harsh conditions at Wallens Ridge. Mr. Young, who is white, said in his lawsuit that some of the articles suggested he "not only tolerates but encourages abuse by his guards."
Mr. Collins said in an interview that newspaper editors must carefully weigh the consequences of what they publish in the Internet age.
"Newspapers want the benefit of being read worldwide but not the responsibility that comes with it," he said.
The appeals court typically takes several weeks to rule on a case after hearing arguments.


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