Last week, a US court of appeals declined to intervene in a case in which Yahoo was being fined for running an auction site that offered memorabilia banned in France. The case — in which the world’s largest online media company asked the court to rule that a $15 million fine could not be collected in the US because it violated the company’s free speech rights – not only pits such rights against European’s stringent anti-hate group statutes, but raises the issue of multinational companies working within the constraints of foreign law.
Starting in 2000, a Paris court fined Yahoo a per-day amount (now totaling $15 million) for allowing users to display pages on its auctions sites that contained links to purchase Adolf Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf, the fabricated anti-Jewish tract “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and to websites that denied the existence of Hitler’s Holocaust.
While Yahoo claimed the French court decision violated free speech, even “morally reprehensible speech of the worst order,” the 11-member split panel in the US court dismissed the lawsuit last Thursday, stating that because Yahoo voluntarily complied “in large measure” with a French court’s orders to bar the sale of Nazi memorabilia from its site in that country, Yahoo’s free speech argument was invalid.
Explaining the appeals court’s decision to dismiss Yahoo’s case, Judge Raymond C. Fisher said, “the question we face in this federal lawsuit is whether our own country’s fundamental guarantee of freedom of speech protects Yahoo” against the French fine. Because of the court’s split decision, the question has still not fully been answered — and the topic will certainly continue to provoke debate on international Internet regulation and the full reach of US free speech.
Yahoo spokeswoman Linda Du told the LA times, “The majority of the court could not agree as to whether the case was ready to be decided on the 1st Amendment issue.” But Du adds, “based on today’s ruling, Yahoo believes that free speech rights would prevail if the French court orders were attempted to be enforced in the U.S.”