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A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Yahoo Inc.’s First Amendment rights trump a French court order seeking to force the Internet portal to prevent users there from viewing Nazi memorabilia or pay a $13,000-a-day fine. In granting summary judgment, federal Judge Jeremy Fogel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California stressed that it was not a question of French sovereignty or the moral acceptability of promoting Nazism. At issue, Fogel wrote, is whether the French order, which transcends American borders, is consistent with U.S. law. Under U.S. law, he wrote, “it is preferable to permit the non-violent expression of offensive viewpoints rather than impose viewpoint-based governmental regulation upon speech. The government and people of France have made a different judgment based upon their own experience.” Attorneys for Yahoo said Fogel’s decision helps extend the First Amendment to cyberspace. “We are extremely gratified at the judge’s ruling,” said Robert Vanderet, an O’Melveny & Myers partner representing Yahoo. “This is a great victory not just for Yahoo and its users but for all American citizens in its protection of our important constitutional rights.” Ronald Katz, a lawyer for the two French anti-hate groups that pressed the original suit, said, “We are actually pleased. We wanted to take this to the appellate court as soon as possible.” Katz, a Coudert Brothers partner representing the groups, continued, “We need to have the 9th Circuit decide this.” Fogel acknowledged the effect this could have on regulating the Internet, in which “ideas and information transcend borders and the Internet in particular renders the physical distance between speaker and audience virtually meaningless.” He has also said there is no circuit or Supreme Court case on point. The dispute began when the two French groups sued Yahoo under a French law that makes it illegal to display and possess Nazi memorabilia. After a French court ordered the portal to restrict access — even if it meant reconfiguring its Santa Clara, Calif.-based servers — Yahoo filed Yahoo v. La Ligue Contre le racisme et L’antisemitisme, C 00-2127, in San Jose, Calif. Yahoo argued it was technically impossible to comply with the French order without violating the First Amendment rights of its U.S. customers. Fogel refused the groups’ request for discovery, concluding that even if Yahoo had the technology to comply with the French order, forcing it to do so would violate its First Amendment rights. He also rejected the groups’ argument that there wasn’t an active controversy because the French order was not yet final. “This is really a victory today for everyone who operates a Web site large and small,” said Mary Katherine Wirth, Yahoo’s international corporate counsel. “This really does mean foreign courts cannot impose their laws on a Web site just because it’s accessible in their countries.”

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