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Type Well or You'll Find Fallwell (Not Falwell)

Your U.S. Supreme Court has blessed fallwell.com, which may come as something of a surprise to those of you who think of the high court as more the falwell.com type of folks.

The Supremes this week took no direct action on the case of the dueling web sites--falwell vs. fallwell--but rather passed on the whole dispute. That lets stand a federal appeals court ruling protecting the right of a gay activist in New York City to maintain a "gripe site" designed to capture some of the traffic that was trying to get to Virginia preacher Jerry Falwell's site.

Christopher Lamparello's anti-Falwell site focuses on the minister's anti-gay rhetoric and fits into what's now a pretty well developed body of sites designed to satirize or criticize the sites whose addresses they mimic almost perfectly. Actually, Lamparello's site is more courteous than most such efforts, in that he includes disclaimers on every page and even provides a handy link to the real Falwell site.

Most gripe sites are pretty crass attempts to get back at a loathed employer or a company that had the audacity to rip off a customer who knows HTML. Here's a guy who had his own rough experience with a gripe site and has now come to the defense of all folks who want to use the web to get back at their oppressor.

Ralph Nader's Public Citizen has taken up the cause of authors of gripe sites, with considerable success.

In a few especially rewarding cases, owners of gripe sites have even won damages from the big boys who tried to shut them down. My favorite of these cases involved a Dallas man, Henry Mishkoff, who set up a gripe site not to gripe, but to praise his favorite shopping mall. The nitwits who run the mall, the Taubman Company, sued the guy anyway, just for using their name. After all too much back and forth, the courts ruled for the mall fan, under the fairly simple principle that, as the federal appeals court said,

"Taubman concedes that Mishkoff is 'free to shout "Taubman Sucks!" from the rooftops'... Essentially, this is what he has done in his domain name. The rooftops of our past have evolved into the internet domain names of our present."

Free speech should always trump laws protecting commerce; luckily, here's one corner of the law where speech is indeed winning out.

By Marc Fisher |  April 21, 2006; 7:27 AM ET
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One of my favorite gripe sites is "untied.com", which--you guessed it--is aimed squarely at anyone who carelessly misspells "united.com" in an effort to reach United Airlines. The site's graphics and layout are so convincingly realistic that some people seem to think it's the real United site, as evidenced by the numerous requests for refunds in the "Complaints" section.

Posted by: Scott | April 21, 2006 8:30 AM

We have one of those gripe sites and are glad to finally hear some good news about our citizens' free speech rights as GUARANTEED BY THE CONSTITUTION -- glad to hear the Supreme Court actually agrees with the bill of rights in this instance.

YahooSuks.com

Posted by: YahooSuks.com | April 21, 2006 2:27 PM

YahooSuks.com? Not to be confused with YahooSikhs.com, the new venture by Yahoo-India?

Posted by: Spell Check | April 21, 2006 4:12 PM

I guess what puzzles me about this post is the two assumptions in the opening paragraph.

Why would anyone think of the Supreme Court as "falwell.com type of folks?"

And who is really surprised by this decision? Surely the surprising decision would have been the opposite -- if the Supreme Court had taken up the case.

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | April 21, 2006 4:12 PM

Great article! Be sure to visit another gripe site:

http://www.capellauniversity.org

You won't be disappointed. :)

Posted by: 4 Justice | May 5, 2006 3:35 AM

Marc, I was pleased to learn that the TaubmanSucks.com case (in which I was the defendant) was one of your favorites, but I was surprised that you characterized it as a case in which the site owner "even won damages from the big boys who tried to shut them down."

The court did order Taubman to pay some of my expenses (which they did, kicking and screaming all the way), but I'm afraid that I didn't collect any damages from anybody. (Either that or My Check Is In The Mail.) I'm told that that's not the way our system of "justice" works. If Taubman had won, not only would I have had to pay damages, I would have had to pay their legal bills as well. But it turns out that if the defendant wins (which I did), the plaintiff doesn't have to pay a thing (which they didn't).

I understand that the system is different in other countries, but here in the US there doesn't seem to be anything to discourage big companies from suing everyone in sight just because they feel like it.

Posted by: Hank Mishkoff | September 28, 2006 5:19 PM

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