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Censorship lawsuit against Baidu and China gets new life in U.S.

An employee walks past the Baidu company signage outside its headquarters in Beijing, July 26, 2011. REUTERS/Soo Hoo Zheyang
An employee walks past the Baidu company signage outside its headquarters in Beijing, July 26, 2011. REUTERS/Soo Hoo Zheyang

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - A U.S. judge has given a lawsuit by pro-democracy activists against Baidu Inc and the People's Republic of China new life, even after the country invoked its authority as a sovereign nation to block the censorship case.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan said the activists were entitled to serve their lawsuit on Baidu's lawyer in New York, without infringing China's sovereign protections.

Saying the issue had never been analyzed in detail, Furman on Friday night rejected Baidu's contention that allowing service would turn the part of the Hague Convention that China invoked into a "dead letter" by letting a court circumvent it.

The convention is a multilateral treaty that makes it easier to serve court papers internationally.

In their May 2011 lawsuit, eight New York writers and video producers had accused Baidu and China of conspiring to suppress their political speech from Baidu's search engine, the country's most widely used.

The plaintiffs said the content could be found via search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing, and Google's YouTube. They sought millions of dollars in damages for alleged violations of their First Amendment rights and human rights law.

Furman had dismissed the lawsuit on March 25 but put the dismissal on hold to let the plaintiffs propose another means to serve Baidu.

In giving the plaintiffs another chance to pursue their case, Furman said the Hague Convention was designed to ensure "sufficient" notice to recipients abroad of court documents.

Allowing service in the United States "in a manner that does not call upon China to effect service (in that country) does not override its invocation of its own sovereignty and security; to the contrary, it honors that invocation," the judge wrote.

Carey Ramos, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan representing Baidu, declined to comment.

Furman gave the plaintiffs 30 days to serve the complaint to Baidu's U.S. lawyer, and 120 days to serve China through diplomatic channels.

Stephen Preziosi, a lawyer for the activists, said he intends to meet those deadlines. "In terms of fairness and procedurally, the court got it right," Preziosi said.

The lawsuit was filed one year after Google Inc pulled its search engine out of China after hitting censorship issues. China has also blocked YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The case is Zhang et al v. Baidu.com et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 11-03388.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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