Blumenthal v. Drudge, 992 F. Supp 44 (D.D.C. 1998) (full-text).
On August 10, 1997, the defendant Matt Drudge published defamatory statements on America Online (AOL) through his online publication entitled the Drudge Report. The statements were made about the Plaintiff husband and his alleged spousal abuse. Shortly thereafter, the statements were publish a day before the Plaintiff was to serve as Assistant to the President of the United States in the White House. Also, Plaintiff wife was serving as Director of the President's Commission on White House Fellowships in the White house. After receiving a letter from Plaintiffs’ counsel, Drudge retracted the story though a special edition of the Drudge Report posted on his website and emailed it to his subscribers. Subsequently, on August 12, 1997, the Defendant emailed the retraction to AOL and publicly apologized to the Plaintiffs.
The planitiffs sued both Drudge and AOL for defamation. AOL filed a motion for summary judgment based on the immunity provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Drudge moved to dismiss the claim based on lack of personal jurisdiction.
District Court Proceedings
With regard to defendant AOL, the inquiry was whether Section 230 of the CDA provided immunity to AOL since Drudge was an individual with whom AOL had a contract to provide content. The Court agreed with the Plaintiffs' argument that AOL was not immune under Section 230 because AOL had certain editorial control over the content provided by Drudge, and it would be fair to hold AOL to the liability standards of a publisher or a distributor under defamation law. However, the Court deferred to the congressional intent in creating Section 230. The Court recognized Congress' choice to provide immunity to Internet service providers (e.g., AOL, Yahoo!, Google) even when the provider had an active role in the dissemination of the content produce by third parties. Thus, the Court upheld the congressional policy decision of "immunity to [Internet Service providers] from tort liability as an incentive to Internet Service providers to self police the internet for obscenity and other offensive material, even where the self-policing is unsuccessful or not even attempted."
Moreover, the Court reasoned that Congress enacted Section 230 to remove disincentives to self-regulation because it feared that liability would deter internet service providers from blocking and screening offensive material (citing Zeran v. America Online, Inc.) that Congress made no distinction between publishers and distributors and to subject Internet service providers to those standard would violate Section 230 of the CDA. Therefore, since subjecting AOL to liability of a distributor would provide a disincentive of self-regulation under Section 230, congressional intent favored AOL's motion for summary judgment.
Defendant Drudge argued to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction or to transfer the case to a California District Court. The Court was presented with the issue of whether the Drodge satisfied one of the enumerated contacts with the District of Columbia (D.C.). To satisfy this requirement it must be proved that the defendant: (1) regularly does or solicits business in the District of Columbia, or (2) derives substantial revenue from goods used or consumed or services rendered in the District, or (3) engages in any other persistent course of conduct. The Court held that a federal court in D.C. could exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident Internet user by proving interactivity of the website and contacts with residents of the forum state and non- Internet related contacts. The Court reasoned, because the website and AOL's column is accessible to and used by D.C. residents, the interactivity of the website illustrates his course of conduct in D.C. Additionally, the Defendant’s solicitation of contributions from District residents; the Defendant's interview with C-SPAN; and Defendant’s contacts with District residents who provide gossip for the Drudge Report satisfied the elements for D.C. to exercise personal jurisdiction over him.
- D.C. Code §12-423(a)(4).