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AOL, columnist face libel suit

White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal files a defamation suit against AOL and Net gossip columnist Matt Drudge.

A White House adviser today filed a $30 million libel lawsuit against America Online and one of its columnists.

Sidney Blumenthal filed the defamation suit against AOL and Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge, creator of the two-year-old Drudge Report.

In an August 10 column, Drudge alleged that court records existed documenting the Clinton adviser had abused his wife. But the columnist issued a retraction the following day on AOL, which reaches 8.6 million members.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleged that Drudge knew the story was false or acted with reckless disregard by not thoroughly checking his facts when he said in his Drudge Report that Blumenthal "has a spousal abuse past."

William McDaniel, the Blumenthals' attorney, said in a statement: "If Drudge had done anything at all to verify the story, he would have discovered [his statement] was false. If Drudge had asked to see the court records, or even asked what court was involved, he would have learned this story was phony."

The suit seeks $10 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages. It also seeks an injunction that forces Drudge and AOL to take steps to remove the false story from the Internet, "to the extent practicable."

Blumenthal, who became an adviser to President Clinton on August 11, directed inquiries about the suit to his attorney.

AOL has not seen a copy of the complaint and is not commenting at this time, said AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose. Drudge has been an AOL columnist since mid-July.

The suit is one of the latest to raise the issue of what responsibility Internet service providers and online services hold for the content posted on their sites.

Last January, a Florida woman sued AOL for allegedly allowing one of its members to market pornographic pictures of her young son via the service. The plaintiff claimed that AOL was responsible for the content available on its service and had failed to monitor its members. And in a $1 million suit filed last year, two Orange County, California, women alleged AOL and Surflink posted pictures of their bikini-clad bodies without their permission.

The suit also raises questions of which kinds of content posted on the Internet are subject to First Amendment lawsuits--whether email between friends and newsletters with miniscule circulation, for example, will be held to the same standard as large publications.

"Online, in-line, or in the newspaper, we are all governed by the same law: You cannot spread false stories, even about a public figure, if you know the stories are false, or if you act with reckless disregard for whether they are false," McDaniel said.

The suit was filed on behalf of Blumenthal and his wife, Jacqueline Jordan Blumenthal, who is also a Clinton appointee.

The attorney said AOL is also responsible in the suit because it contracted with Drudge as his "take-no-prisoners" style would attract AOL subscribers who "crave instant gossip."

Drudge could not be reached for comment, but his Web site was topped off with a link to a story headlined, "White House aide sues Internet reporter."