Texas judge orders T O P I X to relea...

Texas judge orders T O P I X to release user identity

Posted in the Pecos Forum


United States

#1 Dec 4, 2012
On February 03, 2009, Mark and Rhonda Lesher filed a defamation lawsuit against anonymous messageboard posters on Topix.com . Self-described as "the world's largest community news site," Topix.com aggregates news articles and hosts messageboards for users to comment and discuss. According to the Leshers' petition, over 1,700 defamatory statements were made about them by anonymous posters on Topix.com . The 365-page petition includes 2,568 counts of defamation, libel per se and defamation per se against the anonymous users. The petition specifically identifies postings made under 178 different usernames, such as "lou," "Awareness," and "BUDWEISER." Because Topix messageboard users can post under multiple usernames and they can post under usernames previously used by others, the actual number of defendants in the lawsuit is uncertain.

According to the petition, the defamatory comments began "almost immediately" following allegations in April 2008 that the Leshers had sexually assaulted Shannon Coyle. Mr. Lesher is a practicing attorney and Coyle was one of his previous clients. Many of the allegedly defamatory comments crudely describe the Leshers as sexual deviants, molesters, and drug dealers. On January 15, 2009, a jury found the Leshers not guilty on all counts of sexual assault in relation to this matter, and they were subsequently acquitted.

On February 3, 2009, the Leshers filed suit against the anonymous Topix.com posters in the District Court of Tarrant County, Texas, the 348th District Court. Tarrant County is where the Leshers claim "a significant number" of the defendants are located, according to the "IP address locators" on Topix.com . In their petition, the Leshers allege that the defamatory comments "affected their reputations in the community as businesspersons and has significantly damaged their businesses." Additionally, the comments are alleged to have "created psychological, emotional and financial trauma for both plaintiffs."

The Leshers did not file suit against Topix.com , nor did they request the offending postings be taken down. However, they did make an ex-parte motion requesting that an out-of-state subpoena be issued to Topix.com , in order to identify the anonymous posters. On February 04, 2009, Judge Dana Wormach of the District Court of Tarrant County Texas, the 384th District Court, issued an order granting the motion. The order requested issuance of a letter rogatory to the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, California, where Topix.com is located.

According to Texas Lawyer, Topix.com CEO Eric Tolles was served with a subpoena on February 5. Texas Lawyer reports that Tolles is "willing to be reasonable in complying with the subpoena, even though requesting information for 178 names strikes him as 'fairly broad.'" Additionally, Tolles is quoted saying "all we're going to be able to provide them with is an IP address," which is just the first step to identifying the posters. The subpoena required the documents be produced by March 6, but according to Texas Lawyer, the Leshers have granted Topix.com an additional week to comply.

Judge Wormach's also ordered the Leshers to post notice of the subpoena "on the appropriate message boards on Topix.com ," so that any objections could be made before February 18. In a thread titled "Lesher v. Doe defamation lawsuit," William Pieratt Demond, who represents the Leshers, published notification of the lawsuit and the subpoena on Topix.com . Demond advised those making libelous postings to "cease and desist." Additionally, he offered "conditional immunity" to the first defendant who could provide the name, address, and telephone number of the poster using the pseudonym "lou." The offer did not extend to the user of the name "lou," users of thee other pseudonyms, or anyone in the Coyel family. Demond told Texas Lawyer that so far, no posters had come forward.

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