4th Circuit Reverses Finding of Personal Jurisdiction in Web Publishing Case
On Dec. 13, 2002, the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed a lower court decision finding personal jurisdiction in Virginia over two Connecticut newspapers and certain of their staff for the posting of allegedly defamatory news articles on the Internet. Young v. New Haven Advocate, Docket No. 01-2340 (4th Cir. 2002). In finding that personal jurisdiction did not exist, the 4th Circuit concluded that the defendants did not demonstrate an intention to aim their websites or the posted articles to a Virginia audience.
In this case, the two Connecticut newspapers published news articles on the Internet addressing Connecticut's policy of housing its prisoners in the state of Virginia's prison system. The warden of a Virginia prison where Connecticut prisoners were housed brought suit claiming the articles defamed him. The warden argued that personal jurisdiction was proper because the newspapers knew he resided in Virginia, the articles that were posted on the Internet were accessible in Virginia, and the harm to the warden's reputation from the defamatory statements occurred in Virginia.
In finding a lack of jurisdiction, the 4th Circuit relied on its decision issued earlier this year in ALS Scan, Inc. v. Digital Service Consultants, Inc. In ALS Scan, the 4th Circuit adopted the Zippo test for Internet transactions and found that personal jurisdiction exists only if a person"(1) directs electronic activity into the state, (2) with the manifested intent of engaging in business or other interactions within the State, and (3) that activity creates, in a person within the State, a potential cause of action cognizable in the State's courts."
Here, the 4th Circuit determined that in cases involving the posting of articles on a website, parts one and two of the ALS Scan test should be combined to "ask whether the newspapers manifested an intent to direct their website content … to a Virginia audience." In ALS Scan, the court found that placing content on the Internet alone is not sufficient to establish personal jurisdiction in each state where that content is accessed. Instead, "something more" than posting content and accessibility to it is necessary. The newspapers, through their Internet postings, must "manifest an intent to target and focus on Virginia readers."
In applying this test, the Court found that the newspapers' Internet content was overwhelmingly local and that the advertisements were not directed towards a Virginia audience. The Court concluded that the newspapers' websites serve local readers and businesses in Connecticut. Moreover, the Court determined that the focus of the specific articles at issue was on the Connecticut prisoner transfer policy and its impact on the prisoners and their families in Connecticut. Since there was no "manifest intent" to target readers in Virginia, 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 article[s]."
This case stands in stark contrast to the case decided last week by the Australian High Court, which held that liability for defamation can occur wherever Internet content is accessed, without regard to the “manifest intent” test used by the 4th Circuit here. Thus, while U.S. courts are required to apply a minimum contacts test in determining whether jurisdiction is constitutionally appropriate, courts in other parts of the world may not be so constrained.