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First Amendment Supports Drudge

Michael J. Ring

Last month Sidney Blumenthal, an aide to President Clinton, walked into a Washington courtroom after being subpoenaed to give testimony in the Monica Lewinsky matter. It is rumored that Blumenthal has been leaking information to the press about the staff of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr in an attempt to damage Starr's investigation of Clinton. Blumenthal told the Associated Press that Starr demanded information about every conversation he had with members of the press. The White House aide termed the subpoena "an assault on the first amendment."

On the 11th of March Blumenthal will be back in court in another matter raising first amendment questions. This time, however, he will be a plaintiff. Blumenthal and his wife are suing Internet journalist Matt Drudge and America Online, mainly over Drudge's refusal to disclose his sources after printing scandalous rumors about Blumenthal.

Drudge, 30, has skyrocketed to the top of the media world with his widely read Drudge Report, which can be accessed through America Online or the Internet at http://www.drudgereport.com. From his Hollywood apartment, Drudge vigilantly monitors news wires and makes calls to his network of insiders, always searching for a scoop. And he most definitely gets them: the Drudge Report offers its readers the breaking news and hot rumors that have become the essence of American politics in the 1990s.

The controversies swirl from the August 11th issue of the Drudge Report, in which the journalist reports a story entitled, "GOP: The Blumenthal Option?" It states that the Republican brass was considering using allegations of spousal abuse against the presidential aide if Democrats used similar allegations against GOP media operative Don Sipple to damage Republican interests.

Drudge did not present a unilateral opinion in his article. He quoted "one influential Republican, who demanded anonymity," as saying, "There are court records of Blumenthal's violence against his wife," he also quoted an anonymous White House source who called the allegations completely false, noting: "This story about Blumenthal has been in circulation for years."

According to the report, Drudge tried to contact Blumenthal several times but was unsuccessful. And Drudge's word choice in the dispatch, including such words as "accusations" and "allegations", served again to note this story was not to be then taken as incontrovertibly true. The allegations were indeed false, and there were no court records. Drudge unequivocally retracted his statements the very next day, but the Blumenthals were unsatisfied.

They demanded, among other names, the "influential Republican, who demanded anonymity" and the "White House source" in Drudge's article. In short, Sidney Blumenthal was engaging in the very same activity that he now finds so reprehensible.

The 1964 case New York Times vs. Sullivan would seem to protect Drudge. That Supreme Court decision protects the publication of all statements, including false statements, surrounding the behavior of public officials, so long as the author of the article does not act with malice.

By noting the allegations were not his, but those of another, and seeking White House comment on the situation, Drudge attempted to report the view from all perspectives. He certainly was not acting with malice.

A lawsuit that threatens the rights and liberties of our press is a very serious and frightening affair. And perhaps the most threatening thing about it is that the Chief Executive of the country may be on board. Apparently President Clinton has approved of Blumenthal's decision to sue Drudge though nothing in the fateful report of August 11th even hinted at accusations against Clinton.

"Mr. Blumenthal did talk to the President and the Vice President about this, who told them that they support him if he wanted to proceed along these lines," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

Bill Clinton would probably like nothing more than to see the Drudge Report shut down. Matt Drudge has been a relentless critic of the President, and it was the Drudge Report that first broke the Lewinsky matter. In the following weeks the dispatch has contained additional damaging details of the alleged affair. But these are not slanderous attacks on the President; the Clinton-Lewinsky connection has become a very serious matter indeed. They are now a focus of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation. Certainly the public has a right to know why its head of state is under investigation.

Perhaps no persons' experience can better demonstrate the White House's opinion of the Drudge report than that of Susan Estrich. A former Dukakis campaign manager, Estrich is hardly a conservative. Yet after a column in USA Today in which she defends Drudge's right to free speech, the editorial board of that publication received a complain; not from Blumenthal or his attorneys, but from the President's Deputy Press Secretary.

In a second column, Estrich perfectly characterized the worrisome situation: "If this is a private lawsuit pursued in a private capacity, why is the White House calling to complain?" Most likely the President wants no part of the lawsuit but feels obliged to back his friend and confidant Blumenthal. But if there are other motives for Clinton, one shudders to even think of the implications.

Matt Drudge presents his news hard, raw, and fast. He is bound to have some faults upon the way, report a mistaken rumor, and unintentionally give his readers a piece of incorrect information now and then. But it these very qualities of immediacy and importance that have propelled the Drudge Report to its current level of success.

So long as Drudge reports sincerely and without malice, the first amendment is on his side. So too, then, should be every American who cherishes the rights afforded under our Constitution.