Physicist sues for libel on Internet

June 12, 1998

A BRITISH physicist has sued two United States universities for libel over Internet messages posted from their computer systems.

Laurence Godfrey, described as a lecturer in physics, mathematics and computer science, has sued Cornell University and the University of Minnesota in the London High Court. He claims the colleges allowed defamatory messages about him to be posted by graduate students.

Dr Godfrey told the New York Times that the postings were "very serious allegations of a personal nature" that were untrue and highly damaging. The Cornell suit, filed in October but first reported on the NY Times website this week, claims Pounds 50,000 in damages.

Dr Godfrey alleges that a former graduate student at Cornell posted five messages to usenet group "soc.culture.canada" in 1994 and 1995. "I suffered damages as a result of these allegations," he said, according to columnist Carl Kaplan. "The messages were read by people. There were quite a lot of British participants on the Canada newsgroup."

In the Minnesota case, the suit concerns postings placed by a Thai graduate student, university officials said.

Lawyers for Cornell and the Minnesota universities are contesting the claims in London. Both are in the pre-trial stage and could test how far British libel laws apply on the Internet. "We have moved to dismiss this claim for failure of jurisdiction," said Bill Donohue, in the legal counsel's office at Minnesota. "We don't believe we are liable or responsible for the complaints by this person."

It is not the first time Dr Godfrey has brought Internet law suits. Two years ago, he received an undisclosed sum from another British scientist. He won a libel suit against an Internet service provider in Australia and brought a lawsuit in January against London-based Demon Internet Ltd.

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