The owner of a Web site critical of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's views on homosexuality did not violate trademark laws by using a misspelling of the evangelist's name as the site's domain name, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed a lower court decision, ruling that Christopher Lamparello of New York City can continue to operate his "gripe site" at http://www.fallwell.com.
"The result proves this is still America," Lamparello said in a telephone interview. "Just because someone who's a lot more powerful than I am demands that I do something doesn't mean I should do it."
Jerry Falwell Ministries can be found online at http://www.falwell.com.
U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ruled last August that Lamparello's domain name was nearly identical to the trademark bearing Falwell's name and could confuse Web surfers, despite a disclaimer noting that it is not affiliated with Falwell. The appeals court disagreed, citing the adversarial nature of the Lamparello's site.
"After even a quick glance at the content of the website ... no one seeking Reverend Falwell's guidance would be misled by the domain name http://www.fallwell.com into believing that Reverend Falwell authorized the content of that website," Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote, noting that the site criticized Falwell, his positions and his interpretations of the Bible.
Among the headlines on Lamparello's site are "Proof that fundamentalists selectively quote the Bible" and "What commandment is Dr. Falwell breaking?"
Falwell's attorney, John H. Midlen Jr., said he will ask the full appeals court to reconsider the decision.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a brief supporting Lamparello, called the ruling a victory for free speech on the Internet.
Lamparello is not the first Web master to clash with Falwell over domain names. In 2003, an Illinois man surrendered the domain names jerryfalwell.com and jerryfallwell.com after Falwell threatened to sue him over trademark infringement.