April 23, 1998 10:30 AM PDT

AOL cleared in Drudge libel case

A federal judge has dismissed a $30 million defamation suit filed against America Online by a White House adviser, ruling that Internet service providers are immune from civil suits stemming from the editorial content they carry.

Charges still stand against Matt Drudge, the author of the report upon which the case is based. Drudge's dispatch runs on his own Web site and can be reached through AOL, as well as other services.

According to AOL, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman ruled that Congress exempted AOL from the defamation suit when it passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996. That law treats AOL and other providers as conduits of information, he said, not publishers of material.

Civil libertarians and other Net providers who had been closely watching the case are likely to hail it as a precedent-setting victory. Had the judge ruled the other way, ISPs were concerned that they would be held responsible for the content posted by their customers.

The suit was filed by White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. Drudge had reported that Blumenthal had a "spousal abuse past." Blumenthal and his wife, Jacqueline, filed the suit against Drudge, who retracted the report the next day and apologized.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleged that Drudge knew that the story was false or acted with "reckless disregard for the truth" by not thoroughly checking facts in his online Drudge Report.


CNET Radio's report on shielding ISPs from content liability
 
AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato said company lawyers are still reading through the ruling and had no immediate comment. The company did, however, issue a brief statement saying that Congress intended to "encourage a diversity of speech on the Internet. The judge's dismissal of the case against AOL is consistent with Congress's intent and previous court decisions."

The Blumenthals' lawyer said they plan to appeal the ruling, according to reports.

In his 28-page ruling, Friedman wrote that the information revolution has created unprecedented challenges, including a competition among journalists and news organizations for instant news, rumors, and other information that is communicated so quickly that it is often unchecked and unverified.

"Whether wisely or not, [Congress] made the legislative judgment to effectively immunize providers of interactive computer services from civil liability...with respect to material disseminated by them but created by others," according to a Washington Post story that quoted Friedman's ruling.

 

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