What's in a name? Falwell contests website use

Chris Lamparello was watching a debate on CNN's Crossfire six years ago about whether gay men should be allowed in the Boy Scouts. Suddenly, he decided that enough was enough.

"When it came time for Jerry Falwell to speak, he said that gay men should be prohibited from joining the Scouts because 'no one knows what would happen when the lights go down.'

"For whatever reason, I take these things personally, and being referred to as a possible danger to children just completely and utterly offended me. I was totally disgusted," Lamparello says.

And so it was that the New York man made the move to launch fallwell.com– intentionally misspelling Falwell's name in the web address– to give himself a place to share his views on the subject with the world.

He didn't know at the time that his choice of domain name would land him in federal court.

"Mr. Lamparello wants to call public attention to the subject matter of his website, and because the Internet is so humongous, and it's virtually impossible to navigate it otherwise, he, as others, uses an appropriate domain name to call attention to his site. That's what's at issue here," says Lamparello's attorney, Paul Levy, of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen Litigation Group.

Falwell's attorney, John Midlen, says that Lamparello's use of Falwell's surname– even with the extra -l - constitutes a clear trademark infringement, and the federal district court that heard the first arguments in the case agreed. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard Lamparello's appeal of that judgment in May, and a ruling is expected from the Fourth Circuit later this year.

The case "probably anticipates a wave of litigation about the claimed use and misuse of domain names outside the commercial context," says Robert O'Neil, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

"We are not challenging Lamparello's right to publish whatever he likes on his website," Jerry Falwell Jr. says. "We are only contesting his use of a mark that is confusingly similar to our registered trademark to attract visitors to his site."

Falwell Jr. told the AFP that Jerry Falwell Ministries "often receives letters from donors and supporters complaining that they found Lamparello's fallwell.com site when trying to find the falwell.com site."

Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which filed a legal brief on behalf of Lamparello in the ongoing case, said there is "nothing at all deceptive about the site"– which features disclaimers informing web surfers that the site is not affiliated with Jerry Falwell or his ministry and links to falwell.com for those who have been misdirected to the web page.

"This is an Internet free-speech case, and it's important because we're still deciding how to deal with free-speech issues as they apply to the Internet," Willis says.

Jerry Falwell