Rachel Dove-BaldwinHeartland News Service
October 2, 2012
WILLIAMSON — “Some of the worst offenders who frequent the Topix websites in the entire United States are right here in Mingo County,” stated Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury, during a hearing in his courtroom this week.
Judge Thornsbury was using a case scheduled for trial in October in circuit court that involves allegations of sexual misconduct against a Mingo County educator as a prime example of what problems can occur when the public hides behind the curtain of anonymity and posts derogatory comments and personal feelings about a case that has not yet been to trial, and no verdict has been reached.
“You see remarks on this site that absolutely qualifies as character assassination,” stated the judge. “And before anyone gets upset and says we’re all entitled to our opinion and the 1 st Amendment of the Constitution protects our rights to freedom of speech, yes that it correct. But – it does not apply to those who hide behind an alias to attack someone on Topix.”
“The U.S. Congress needs to adopt stricter laws to govern sites like these, or shut them down completely.”
The case regarding sexual misconduct allegations involving students under the age of 18 has reportedly become a target for several Tug Valley residents who do not list their names while posting unflattering remarks. Judge Thornsbury agreed to an order proposed by Defense Attorney Jane Moran to issue a total of 20 subpoenas to Topix to acquire the Internet Protocol (IP) address for the forum threads specific to this case, which will be used to reveal the identity of those who made the posts.
“They will be unmasked, their identity will be known,” stated the Judge. “Inappropriate behavior like that can taint a jury pool in the blink of an eye. It’s impossible to un-ring a bell after its rung. People read the comments on Topix and they form a preconceived notion or belief about whether a person is innocent or guilty before a defendant even has the opportunity to plead his or her case in court.”
Numerous lawsuits against Topix or those who post untruths on the site, are popping up in great numbers all across the U.S., with one landmark case dated April of this year in Clarksville, Texas resulting in a judgment in the amount of $13 million being awarded to a couple whose attorney had requested the court to subpoena 178 IP addresses involving derogatory and slanderous posting on the Topix forum in their town.
In Ironton, Ohio, in March of 2011, Ralph Cox, Jr. filed a lawsuit against five anonymous Topix commenters who posted remarks that he claimed defamed his character and harmed his reputation.
The lawsuit alleged that the unknown defendants posted written statements on the website that portrayed the plaintiff in a false and untrue manner.
“The defendants made and published the statements they knew were false or that demonstrated a reckless disregard for the truth, knowing full well they would result in harm to the plaintiff’s interest”, stated the attorney representing the victim.
The lawsuit further alleges that the defendants published the statements maliciously and with full intentions to injure, vex or annoy the plaintiff and as a result of doing so, irreparably harmed and tainted his reputation.
After subpoenas were signed by the local judge and issued to Topix, the name of the anonymous poster was unveiled, and revealed that a total of 20 posts under 5 different screen names were posted against Cox, all from the same IP address. Mark Vaughan, also of Ironton, was the individual responsible for the derogatory statements, and following the conclusion of the civil trial, was ordered to pay the plaintiff $250,000 in damages for his actions. According to the prosecuting attorney in Lawrence County, Ohio that assisted with the case, there is a distinct possibility that criminal charges may also be filed.
In Union County, Ga, a jury recently returned a $404,000 verdict against a woman who posted false and malicious allegations on Topix against a man she barely knew, stating he was a drug addict, a criminal and a pedophile, among other things. The libelous comments on the Topix community website were so severe that the plaintiff lost his job and had to leave town to seek employment elsewhere. The poster used multiple screen names to bash the plaintiff’s reputation and also attacked those who posted comments in defense of him. When asked in court why she posted the false statements against the plaintiff who she had only met on one occasion, she reportedly stated, “I know a pervert when I see one, and he looks the part.”
Again as in the other cases listed above, the identity of the malicious poster was revealed after her IP address was subpoenaed from Topix, which led a path straight to the defendants door.
“Contrary to popular thought, statements made on anonymous sites such as Topix can be traced, and will be traced,” stated Judge Thornsbury. “I believe in holding people responsible for their actions and if you choose to post derogatory statements against another party, you need to be prepared to answer and explain your actions because your identity will be revealed.”
Topix.net is a Palo-Alto, Calif. Based Company that links news from 50,000 sources to 360,000 user-generated forums, according to their website. It was reportedly first started to be a community and national “watch-dog” site to allow whistle-blowers an opportunity to report problems within major companies or those dealing with alleged political corruption. Instead, this site has snowballed into a forum for the majority of all communities and towns across the U.S., where local gossip abounds, according to a research report headed up by litigation Attorneys Kane, Russell, Coleman and Logan, who assist in governing and overseeing reported cases of cyberbullying, defamation and abuse utilizing social-networking sites.
Numerous sites on the internet include questions posted by the public asking if they can sue Topix for the comments posted against them on their site. According to the website http/toxictopics.webs.com/internetlaw, topix has basically put their website out there for everyone to abuse, and then have stepped back and washed their hands of any legal action against them, claiming that it was the poster who broke the law, not them. And while legally speaking that this is true, they have done very little to prevent it from happening in spite of it having been a recurring problem for half a decade now. The website says that these comments are not to say, however, that those who abuse Topix or any other website, should not be held accountable for their actions.
The article concluded using the following analogy: “If you let loose a rabid dog in a children’s park, you can hardly blame the dog for injuries suffered without blaming the one who released the dog.”
“Topix knows full well that its site is being abused rampantly but they have crushed their consciences and chosen to only look at the Topix regulars clubhouse or the occasional political whistle blow to justify the site.”