Court finds city discriminated with Web links
- By Daniel Keegan
- Jul 26, 2000
By not providing a link to a World Wide Web site critical of its city, Cookeville,
Tenn., officials were likely guilty of "viewpoint discrimination," the U.S.
Court of Appeals ruled.
The panel of 6th Circuit judges ruled
July 19 that a policy requiring linked sites to promote the city's tourism,
industry and economic welfare gives "broad discretion" to city officials
to discriminate based on viewpoint.
The case involves a California-based publisher, Geoffrey Davidian, whose
free tabloid and Web page, The Putnam Pitt, (www.putnampit.com) has accused
the city of various types of corruption, including the cover-up of a murder.
After Davidian requested that the city place a link on its site to his newspaper,
the city created the policy preventing such a link. Davidian sued in 1997,
claiming the policy violated the First Amendment by squelching his free
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee rejected his
arguments, but the Appeals court ruled otherwise, returning the case to
Although the appellate court said the "city's establishment of a policy
to limit the pool of persons who might be linked to the city's Web page
is reasonable," the manner in which the city did so was wrong.
The court found that the city did not link the site to Davidian's paper
not only because it conflicted with the intent of the city site, but also
because they did not like the opinions expressed in it.
Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor specializing in Internet
law said the case carries "a significant amount of weight," although he
cautioned city officials that the decision does not mean that they must
link to all sites that make such requests.
"The concern is that the government can cherry pick which sites to include
or not include on the Web page based solely on your view of something,"
he said. If allowed to, Geist said, the government could use the site to
further its political agenda, such as linking to anti-abortion Web sites.
In contrast to what Cookeville did, governments should "establish a policy
first and apply it in an even-handed manner." If not, it's akin "to firing
someone and then drawing up the rules about why afterwards," he said.