Web site ordered to unmask anonymous posters in libel case

Topix.com says it is reviewing the demand before releasing information.

The U.S.' First Amendment protects the right to free speech and anonymous free speech. But it doesn't offer the right to libel someone, anonymously or otherwise.

A Texas circuit court judge served up a reminder of the amendment last week when she ordered an online news aggregation site to turn over any potentially identifying information it has on 178 people. They had anonymously posted allegedly defamatory comments on the site about two individuals involved in a sexual assault case.

Tarrant County District Court Judge Dana Womack served a subpoena to Topix.com. The company has until March 6 to comply with the order.

The order was issued in connection with a lawsuit that was filed by Mark and Rhonda Lesher (PDF document), a couple from Clarksville, Texas, who had been charged with, but recently acquitted of, sexually assaulting a woman.

Mark Lesher, a practicing attorney in Clarksville and Rhonda Lesher, who operates a beauty salon in the town, were accused last year of the crime against a former client of Mark Lesher.

The two were acquitted on all counts by a jury in Collin County in January after the case was moved in September 2008 to a new venue because of fears that the Leshers wouldn't get a fair trial in Red River County, where the case was originally heard.

Forums flare up

The complaint alleged that media reports about the case generated more than 25,000 comments -- many of them were anonymous and harshly critical of the couple -- on Topix.com's user forums. The allegedly offensive comments were present on more than 70 individual threats on Topix message boards of nearby Texas communities such as Clarksville, McKinney and Avery, the complaint noted.

The Leshers claimed that the comments were a form of persecution against them and that the anonymous posters had defamed them and tarnished their reputation, their standing in the community and their businesses.

The complaint added that before the case began, neither of the Leshers had any presence on Topix. It claimed that the Leshers were the "victims of a vicious cyberdefamation campaign" that was waged on Topix, and sought actual and other kinds of damages from the as yet unidentified posters of the messages.

William Pieratt Demond, a partner at Connor & Demond PLLC, a law firm in Austin that is representing the Leshers, said that the lawsuit was limited to the posters of only those statements that are arguably defamatory under Texas law.

The allegations in the anonymous postings in question "are so inflammatory and so horrendous under Texas law that no proof of damages is even required" to pursue the lawsuit, Demond said. "All we have to prove is that it was said and damages are presumed under the law."

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