By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - Baidu Inc on Monday won the dismissal of a U.S. lawsuit brought by pro-democracy activists who claimed that China's largest search engine operator, as well as the country itself, should be punished for censoring them over the Internet.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan said dismissal was proper because the defendants had not been properly served with court papers, and China had invoked an international treaty in claiming that service would infringe its sovereignty.
The case had been brought in May 2011 by eight New York writers and video producers.
They said Baidu and China violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as various civil and human rights laws, by conspiring to suppress their political speech from Baidu's search engine results.
The plaintiffs said their content could be found through rival search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft's Bing, and Google's video-sharing service YouTube, and that the suppression on Baidu justified millions of dollars in damages.
But Furman said there was "plainly no merit" to the idea that the defendants were properly served.
He said that China had expressly invoked a Hague Convention provision allowing it to refuse service that "would infringe its sovereignty or security."
The judge also said he lacked jurisdiction to decide whether China properly invoked that provision, and that if he had jurisdiction he would find that the invocation could apply to private parties such as Baidu.
Furman put the dismissal on hold for 30 days, to allow the plaintiffs a chance to propose another means of serving Baidu, and show why China should not be dismissed as a defendant.
China did not make a formal appearance in the litigation, but had previously said the lawsuit should fail because a U.S. court cannot tell a sovereign country what to do.
Stephen Preziosi, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, did not immediately respond on Monday to a request for comment.
Carey Ramos, a lawyer for Baidu, did not immediately respond to a similar request.
The lawsuit had been filed one year after Google Inc pulled its search engine out of China after hitting censorship issues.
China has also blocked social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as YouTube.
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 Tim Dobbyn)