First Amendment Prevents Enforcement of French Judgment Against US Website

Sarl Louis Feraud International and S.A. Pierre Balmain, French corporations that design and market high-fashion clothing, sought to enforce a default judgement issued by the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris against Viewfinder Inc., an American company that maintains websites on which it posts photographs from fashion shows and other information about fashion events, for copyright infringement. In May 2001 the French court awarded damages to plaintiffs, along with a coercive fine (“astreinte”) of 50,000 francs per day for each day that Viewfinder failed to comply with the judgment. Plaintiffs brought this action seeking to enforce the French ruling.The first issue the Court considered was the finality of the French judgment and whether the astreinte needed to be reduced to a fixed amount to be enforceable. The Court held that it was final, but that the issue of prospective relief had no bearing on that of compensation for past violations and it would only consider the merits of the damages award at this time.

Viewfinder argued that the French judgment should not be enforced under principles of comity because it was “repugnant” to American law and public policy in three respects: (1) the calculations of damages was arbitrary, (2) French law is inconsistent with American copyright and intellectual property principles, and (3) enforcement of the judgment would be inconsistent with the First Amendment. The Court found that only the last of these arguments had merit, reasoning that under principles of comity the issue was not whether Viewfinder’s actions in France violated American law, but whether the judgment of the French court imposing liability under French law is “repugnant” to American law and public policy. The Court held that on these facts, only the alleged constitutional violations could meet this standard.

According to the Court, speaking with regard to the difference between American and French legal systems, even in areas “where reasonable people and decent societies may reasonably disagree, American courts have recognized that foreign judgments that run afoul of First Amendment values are inconsistent with our notions of what is fair and just, and conflict with the strong public policy of our State.” [Emphasis in original.]

The Court noted that the First Amendment protects speech that can be banned in other democratic countries. For instance, American courts have refused to enforce foreign judgments such as those in France restricting access to Nazi propaganda and those in England imposing liability for libel.

Dismissing plaintiff’s action, the Court held that Viewfinder’s photography was protected by the First amendment regardless of whether it involved the expression of political opinions or the intention to convey a particularized message. Furthermore, it did not matter that Viewfinder used the photographs to make money. According to the Court, “fashion shows are a matter of great public interest, for artistic as well as commercial purposes…the First Amendment simply does not permit plaintiffs to stage public events in which the general public has a considerable interest, and then control the way in which information about those events is disseminated in the mass media.”

Add new comment