High court skips Falwell Web site case

Justices won't hear the televangelist's arguments for shutting down a critic's site with a similarly spelled domain name.

A legal spat over a Web site criticizing the Rev. Jerry Falwell for his antigay views won't ascend to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices on Monday declined without comment to take up the evangelical preacher's appeal, which challenged the operator of Fallwell.com, a site that aims to explain "why Rev. Falwell is completely wrong about people who are gay or lesbian." The televangelist had claimed the domain name's spelling was too close to that of his official Web presence and asked the courts to shut it down.

Christopher Lamparello, identified as a gay New York man in his 30s, registered the site in 1999 to air his distaste for Falwell's stance after seeing him profess antigay views during a television interview. Falwell sent Lamparello letters during the next few years demanding that the site be taken down and, when unsuccessful, filed suit against him, claiming trademark infringement, among other allegations.

A district court last year barred Lamparello from using the intentionally misspelled domain name and required him to transfer it to Falwell. But last summer, a three-judge federal appeals court panel reversed that decision, ruling that the site could remain in operation.

"Lamparello's Web site looks nothing like Reverend Falwell's; indeed, Lamparello has made no attempt to imitate Reverend Falwell's Web site," Judge Diana Motz wrote at the time, concluding that the site didn't create a great enough "likelihood of confusion" to give teeth to the trademark infringement claims.

In addition to articles intended to dispel what Lamparello calls untruths about gay people, his site contains disclaimers disavowing any relationship with Falwell's official site.

Lamparello's legal victory came from the same appeals court that in 2001 had supported shutting down a Web site, then at Peta.org, that parodied the acronym for animal-protection group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals by renaming it People Eating Tasty Animals. (That site is still accessible, only at a different URL.)

The legal setbacks surrounding Fallwell.com weren't Falwell's first. A federal judge in 2003 dismissed another trademark infringement case brought by the televangelist against Jerryfalwell.com and Jerryfallwell.com.

John Midlen, Falwell's attorney in the dispute, told CNET News.com on Monday that he was disappointed in the Supreme Court's denial of his client's petition. He said that all legal options in the matter had been exhausted.

Paul Levy, the Public Citizen attorney who represented Lamparello, said he was pleased by the Supreme Court's inaction, which effectively leaves the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' "important decision" standing. "They said, take a step back, don't just automatically assume that initial interest confusion is a doctrine that applies in all circumstances," he said.

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