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Libel suit could chill Net publishing

Independent publishers, heirs to the Net's short tradition of defiant thinking, are concerned about the implications of the AOL-Matt Drudge lawsuit.

After a $30 million lawsuit was filed against Internet columnist Matt Drudge and America Online (AOL), some Web publishers are scrambling to read up on such issues as "libel" and "reckless disregard of truth."

The new legal quagmire with potential consequences for cyberspace comes from White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal, who filed the suit against Drudge and AOL, seeking $10 million in compensatory and $20 million in punitive damages. According to the suit, the Drudge Report stated in an August 10 column that Blumenthal had a history of spousal abuse. Drudge has since issued a retraction to AOL's 8.6 million members, where he has been publishing since mid-July.

Independent publishers, heirs to the Net's short tradition of defiantly individualistic thinking, are particularly concerned about this latest attempt to define their rights and responsibilities. While major media names like Time Warner are well-versed with the legal ramifications of creating content, the effect on smaller publishers could be a chilling one.

First Amendment attorney Lance Rose points out that "even the smallest one-person shop would be considered a full-fledged publisher for First Amendment purposes...An originator of content has the same responsibility as the New York Times."

The suit is welcomed by at least one independent online publisher and investigative journalist. Mike Wegland publishes PC Mike, a site focusing on Internet and computing news.

"There are so many people who have set themselves up as cyberjournalists who have no background in real news," Wegland said. "This rush for content, this lust to get stuff that will draw eyeballs will bring more and more irresponsible reporting."

Attorney Rose noted: "Just knowing that you can be sued for a lot of money can discourage provocative stories."

That is certainly the case for Mark Russinovich, publisher of trade site NT Internals. Without a background in journalism, he must rely on his common sense to "play on the safe side," as he puts it. As an independent operator without the deep pockets of some of the companies he covers, Russinovich has censored himself in the past.

"Whether an angle is valid or not isn't the issue when it's something like Microsoft," he added.

Some sites like The Smoking Gun have gone so far as to declare their site "a Pierre-Salinger-free zone" in reference to the experienced newsman who was duped by Net reports that TWA flight 800 was downed by a U.S. missile.

Daniel Green, an editor at the site, which offers provide public access to material gained through the Freedom of Information Act such as Marv Albert's DNA test results, stands behind the material he publishes. But he expects that the Internet as a whole has a ways to go before it gains widespread credibility.

"How do you compare four months of credibility vs. the forty years of credibility of [publications like] the Washington Post?"