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Virginia Prison Warden's Defamation Suit Survives Dismissal Motion

The United States District Court, Western District of Virginia, denied
motions by Connecticut newspapers, reporters, and editors to dismiss a
Virginia prison warden's suit against the Connecticut defendants after the
defendants posted allegedly defamatory news articles on the newspapers'
World Wide Web sites.

Stanley Young is the warden of the Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone
Gap, Virginia, a "supermax" facility. In 1999, Connecticut contracted with
Virginia to house some of its prisoners and transferred about 500
African-American and Hispanic prisoners to Wallens Ridge. The action was
controversial. Two Connecticut newspapers, The New Haven Advocate and The
Hartford Courant, published news articles and editorials encouraging public
discussion and debate on the policy.

The Advocate published a lengthy news article discussing the harsh
conditions at Wallens Ridge, the difficulty prisoners' families had in
visiting their loved ones in Virginia, and a class action suit the
Connecticut prisoners at Wallens Ridge had filed against Warden Young and
the Connecticut Commissioner of Corrections regarding lack of proper
hygiene and medical care and denial of religious privileges. The article
also mentioned a Connecticut state senator's concerns that Warden Young
decorated his office with Civil War memorabilia.

The Courant published three articles about the prisoner transfer policy. In
one article, reporter Amy Pagnozzi discussed prisoners' letters alleging
cruelty by Wallens Ridge guards. In another column Ms. Pagnozzi called
Wallens Ridge a "cut-rate gulag."

None of the reporters for The Advocate or The Courant visited Virginia in
researching their reports. The reporters did conduct telephone interviews
with the Virginia Department of Corrections' spokespersons. Both The
Advocate and The Courant published the articles and editorials in their
papers and on their papers' World Wide Web sites.

In May 2000, Warden Young sued The Advocate, The Courant, and their
reporters and editors for defamation and libel. Young claimed that the
articles and editorials portrayed Young as a racist who tolerates racism
and prisoners' abuse by guards under his control. He further claimed that
his reputation suffered grave harm in Virginia as a result of the
Connecticut newspapers' reporting. Young brought the suit in federal court
as a diversity action.

The defendants moved to dismiss the suit under Federal
Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) for lack of personal jurisdiction. The
defendants argued they did not research or write the articles in Virginia,
maintain bank accounts in Virginia, or solicit or engage in any business or
persistent course of conduct in Virginia. Young maintained that the
newspapers' maintenance of a Web site that is accessible twenty-four hours
a day to Virginia residents was sufficient to grant personal jurisdiction
under Virginia's long-arm statute.

The district court discussed the standard of review and noted that the
question was, ultimately, "where acts or omissions conducted in cyberspace
actually occur." Thus, the court had to determine whether the newspapers
directly or indirectly caused an injury in Virginia from inside our outside
Virginia, and if from outside Virginia, whether the defendants had
sufficient contacts in Virginia to be liable for the alleged injury.
The court discussed several Internet/Web cases and a few cases preceding
the existence of the Web. The court acknowledged "that the law in the area
of personal jurisdiction based upon an Internet presence is still
evolving." Nevertheless, relying on the case of TELCO Communications v An
Apple A Day, 977 F.Supp. 404 (E.D. Va. 1997), concluded "that the
defendants by posting allegedly defamatory articles on Internet websites
accessible twenty-four hours a day in Virginia conducted an act or omission
within Virginia sufficient for this court to confer jurisdiction over them
in this case."

The defendants argued that granting personal jurisdiction over them in the
suit would violate due process, because they did not have sufficient
minimum contacts in Virginia. The court disagreed, concluding that posting
a news article on a Connecticut web server made the article physically
present anywhere in the world, including Virginia. Relying on a trademark
infringement decision involving an Internet presence, Christian Science
Board of Directors of the First Church of Christ v Nolan, 259 F.3d 209 (4th
Cir. 2001), the district court held that personal jurisdiction over the
defendant newspapers, reporters, and editors did not offend due process.
The motions to dismiss were denied. The case was continued. See the index
for the appellate court decision in this case. See: Young v New Haven
Advocate, 184 F.Supp.2d 498 (W.D. Va. 2001).

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