Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

September 21, 2011

Topix posts lead to lawsuit

GRAYSON — A Carter County businessman alleges in a civil lawsuit filed earlier this month he was libeled by anonymous comments posted about him on an Internet forum.

The suit, filed in Carter Circuit Court by Jeff Mills of Grayson, involves a thread on the Topix website in which the suit claims Mills suffered “character assassination” by being falsely labeled a sex offender.

The complaint, filed by Grayson attorney Robert W. Miler, lists four unknown individuals, or “John Does,” as defendants. One of the demands of the suit is that Topix, which is based in Palo Alto, Calif., turn over information that would identify the four.

The suit alleges both Mills and his business, Johnny’s Pizza, have suffered damage as a result of the defamatory comments.

“ ... being labeled a sex offender is one of the most serious and harmful allegations that can be brought against a person, and, as such, libelous allegations of sex offender can threaten the very safety and life of those falsely accused,” Miller wrote.

According to the suit, the defamatory comments were posted in June in a thread on Topix’ Grayson forum with the heading “jeff.” In the thread, a discussion of Mills and his business begins with a poster asking, “Anybody know if Jeff Mills is single?” the suit states.

Five posts later, according to the suit, the first of the of the defendants, John Doe No. 1, aka “well,” asked: “Does he still run with a sex offender?”  Then, in the very next post, John Doe No. 2, aka “paper,” stated: “He is a sex offender.”

Later on in the thread, John Does Nos. 3 and 4, whose screen names are comprised of random letters, posted comments referencing Mills’ business and claiming Mills is a sex offender, the suit states.

In the days following the initial post, Topix allowed numerous additional comments, many of which also defamed or libeled Mills either directly or indirectly, to be added to the thread, the suit states. Each additional posting bumped the thread back to “the top of the list,” increasing the visibility of the libelous comments, Miller wrote.

The poisonous Topix thread also became quickly ranked in Google search indexing, which resulted in Google searches of Mills’ name displaying it, the suit states.

In the suit, Miller also states his client has never been convicted of a sex crime and the allegations of him being a sex offender are patently false and therefore libelous. Miller also maintains Carter Circuit Court is the proper venue for the suit because the defamatory comments were displayed in a Grayson forum.

Topix itself isn’t a party to the suit, but Miller states he intends to seek information from the company that would compel it to turn over the Internet protocol addresses and other information that would reveal the identities of the defendants. Miller also states he plans to seek such information from area Internet service providers. The company has been forced to do so in other lawsuits.

Mills declined to comment further on the suit Tuesday. Claims made in civil lawsuits state only one side of an issue.

One legal action involving Topix occurred in Lawrence County, Ohio, and just last week resulted in a judge awarding $55,000 in damages to an Ironton man who claimed four individuals using fake names defamed him by posting malicious comments about him on the site. A similar case earlier this year in Union County, Ga., resulted in jury awarding a man $404,000 in damages over numerous libelous statements that were posted about him on Topix.

A story published Tuesday in the New York Times reported how Topix forums largely replaced local diners as the primary sources for gossip in small, rural towns, including Pikeville and Hyden. A diner owner in a “hardscrabble town of 5,000” quoted in the article refers to Topix as “a cesspool of character assassination.”

Unlike Facebook, comments on Topix aren't tied to posters’ real names, so the rumors are "stirring widespread resentment in communities where ties run deep, memories run long and anonymity is something of a novel concept,” the story by reporter A.G. Sulzberger states.

Sulzberger also quotes Hyden Mayor Lonnie Hendrix as saying: "If names had been put on (Topix) and tied to what has been said, there would have been one killing after another."

In the article, Topix CEO Chris Tolles defends the company as being a bastion of free speech and brags: “We’re running the Gawker for every little town in America.”

Topix is owned in part by several major newspaper companies, Gannett, Tribune and McClatchy.

KENNETH HART can be reached at khart@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2654.

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