French court rejects suit on English-only website
By Ibar Aibar
PARIS, April 29 (Reuters)

The first test case attempting to apply France's disputed language law to the Internet ended in failure on Wednesday when an appeals court threw out a suit against a U.S. university on a legal technicality. Two state-approved watchdogs promoting the use of the French language filed a complaint in 1996 against the U.S. Georgia Institute of Technology's French campus for using English alone on its website. They based their case on controversial 1994 legislation requiring that all advertising in France be in French.

A Paris tribunal dismissed the suit last June saying the two groups, Defence of the French Language and Future of the French Language, should have notified a public prosecutor first before pressing charges. The French appeals court upheld the ruling on Wednesday, bringing the case to a close. "I would have liked to avoid the entire matter but we've come out of it at this point satisfied," said Hans Puttgen, the director of Georgia Tech Lorraine, which is based in Metz, eastern France.

However, the rulings have left open the question of whether the language law can be brought to bear on cyberspace. "The big issue here, which is why Georgia Tech decided to defend itself, is that the Internet is not a national organisation but by its nature a global organisation," Puttgen told Reuters Television. "To enforce particular language restrictions appeared to us to be's a question of freedom of expression," he added.

While Internet champions say the worldwide web should be free of national restraints, many governments have asserted their authority over cyberspace to try to block pornography or silence political dissent. The Defence of the French Language and Future of the French Language sought to go one step further, using the 1994 law to seal the nation's electronic gates against the growing global dominance of English. The language law, named after then culture minister Jacques Toubon, was part of a long-running battle to protect the tongue of Moliere and Racine from encroachment by the language of Shakespeare.

But Georgia Tech argued at a hearing last year that communications on the web were like telephone calls. It said its website was in English because all its courses were taught in that language and students were required to be fluent in it. Ironically, since then, Georgia Tech Lorraine has made its website available in French and German as well. Puttgen denied the lawsuit was behind the change, saying instead that the school had expanded its European reach.

Criticised abroad as cultural arrogance and a vain attempt to regulate human conduct by decree, the Toubon law aimed to make the public use of words such as "cheeseburger" and "airbag" punishable by up to six months in prison. The scope of the legislation was later limited to advertising by the Constitutional Council, which ruled that its wider provisions had violated the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Georgia Tech's Metz web site is at

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