In Novel Case, U.S. Court Says "Non, Merci" to French Government's Attempt to Censor Yahoo! Content

November 8, 2001 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO–The American Civil Liberties Union today welcomed a landmark court ruling that affirms the First Amendment’s reach in cyberspace and makes clear that this American constitutional freedom is beyond the reach of foreign governments to control.

In a ruling issued late Wednesday, a federal judge said that American courts would not enforce a French court’s order seeking to force U.S.-based Internet portal Yahoo Inc. from allowing French users access to web pages that contain speech related to Nazism.

“”While France or China or the Taliban have the power to regulate the speech of those within their borders, the court’s decision makes it very clear that these countries do not have the power to reach out and silence speech in the United States,”” said Ann Brick, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. The ACLU national office together with the ACLU of Northern California and a broad coalition of rights groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case .

“”Each nation has its own conception of what is legitimate speech,”” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the National ACLU. “”Only the most bland and homogenized speech could possibly comply with those hundreds of different national laws,”” he said.

The court clearly agreed. Under U.S. law, wrote federal Judge Jeremy Fogel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, “it is preferable to permit the non-violent expression of offensive viewpoints rather than impose viewpoint-based governmental regulation upon speech. The government and people of France have made a different judgment based upon their own experience.”

The case arose when two French groups sued Yahoo under a French law that makes it illegal to engage in speech related to Nazism, including the display and or possession of Nazi memorabilia. After a French court ordered the portal to restrict access — even if it meant reconfiguring its U.S.-based — Yahoo filed Yahoo v. La Ligue Contre le racisme et L’antisemitisme, C 00-2127, in San Jose, CA.

Yahoo argued that it was technically impossible to comply with the French order without violating the First Amendment rights of its U.S. customers.

“Although we can perhaps understand the motivation for the French law that is involved in this lawsuit, most countries that deny their citizens freedom of speech are not so well-intentioned,”” Brick said.

“”Our commitment to preserving that freedom can be sorely tested when the speech at issue is hate-filled,”” Brick concluded. “”But we cannot let the content of the speech cloud our judgment or our commitment to First Amendment.””

The ACLU’s brief was filed on behalf of a broad range of groups and individuals, including the American Booksellers Foundation For Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Digital Freedom Network, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Feminists for Free Expression, the First Amendment Project, the Freedom to Read Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, Lin Hai, the Media Institute, the National Coalition Against Censorship, People for the American Way Foundation, Publishers’ Marketing Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, and VIP Reference.

The ACLU’s legal brief is available at http://archive.aclu.org/court/yahoo.pdf

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