Earlier this week, Hawkins County Clerk of Courts Sarah Davis filed a $200,000 lawsuit in Hawkins County Circuit Court against the anonymous blogger who posted libelous claims about her on the online public forum Topix in July.
Rogersville attorney William Phillips II, who represents Davis in the lawsuit, said there’s a possibility that Topix could be named as a co-defendant as well.
Topix.com is a website with public forums for nearly every community in the country. Using the Topix online forum, anyone can post anything about any subject without any accountability or revealing their true identity.
The Rogersville Topix forum sometimes becomes a place for outrageous gossip, unfounded allegations and outright lies told on victims who often feel powerless to defend themselves. Usually the only recourse is to pay Topix a fee to remove a thread of comments.
Topix maintains a forum in each community in which individual users — either registered, or unregistered and anonymous — create threads or topics with a title. Other users can post comments on the thread and all comments are available for the public to view online.
Davis told the Times-News on Wednesday that after a personal attack on her last summer she wanted to know the identity of her online attacker.
Last summer, someone started three threads alleging that two people were observed having sex in Crockett Springs Park in Rogersville. The original thread was deleted, but there were subsequent threads created called “Crockett Creek Coverup” and “I created the crockett creek hoax.”
On July 6, 2012, the anonymous defendant in Davis’ lawsuit published a comment under the name “luv2walk” specifically naming Davis as the person who was caught in the park during a sexual act and arrested for public intoxication.
The allegation was completely fabricated. At the time this incident in the park was supposed to have occurred Davis was recovering from a recent surgery at home with her husband of 26 years.
Last summer, Davis was also a candidate for Hawkins County clerk of courts in the August election. She had already won the Republican primary and was unopposed in the general election.
Davis said she feels this attack was intended to destroy her, and she wants to ask the perpetrator why.
“Why would someone do something like this? Because they could have taken my whole world away from me,” Davis said. “If my husband wasn’t the kind of man he is, and if I hadn’t just had surgery and was at home all weekend with him — what if my husband had been out of town? They could have destroyed my whole world.”
Davis added, “Who would make something up so cruel? Well guess what. We’re fixing to find out.”
One problem with suing an anonymous person is figuring out a way to serve the defendant notice. Phillips told the Times-News that based on precedent-setting case law, he can officially serve notice to “luv2walk” by posting it on Topix as a reply to the comments.
If the defendant doesn’t file a response in Hawkins County Circuit Court within 30 days of that notice being published, the court will issue a judicial subpoena directing Topix.com to produce all copies of all threads and all identifying information regarding the defendant, including personal computer IP addresses related to the case.
When Phillips posted the notice for “luv2walk” on Topix on Wednesday, however, the notice was deleted in less than a minute — presumably by the website. Phillips said he posted the notice three times, and the same thing happened each time.
“It pops up, and I’ve printed it out where you can see that it was posted, and in less than a minute it’s removed,” Phillips said. “The way Topix retains its immunity from lawsuits is that it is simply an Internet service provider that doesn’t editorialize or review the comments posted. That’s obviously not true because apparently they’ve got some kind of filter that filtered out something in my notice.”
Phillips added, “I’ve got to consider now whether or not I think this removes the immunity from Topix and whether or not I should add them as a party to the lawsuit.”
Not every thread or topic on Topix is inflammatory or rises to the level of libel, and many people who use the website write about legitimate community issues.
Phillips said, however, that there is an element of the community constantly using that website for malicious purposes.
“It’s cyber-bullying, and I believe it has had a negative impact on the majority of people in this community at one time or another,” Phillips said. “You have a community being bullied by a bunch of cowards hiding in the shadow of anonymity. I hope that this will cause the community to reflect on where we get our information from, what we choose to believe, and how we choose to communicate with one another.”
Phillips said most victims of cyber-bullying on Topix probably don’t realize they have the option of filing a lawsuit.
“Most people think if they’re quiet enough about it will go away, but it hasn’t gone away and there’s a new victim daily,” Phillips added.
There is a possibility that the defendant in the Davis lawsuit posted from a public computer or has otherwise insulated himself or herself from detection. Davis said she and Phillips have discussed that possibility, and even if that’s the case she feels the lawsuit will still be valuable to her and the community.
“It’s still going to scare the crap out of people and they’re going to put a stop to it, and everybody is going to know that what was said about me was not true,” Davis said. “Next September, I’m going to have to take my petition around to run for re-election, and this is going to come back up. They’re going to say, ‘This girl was caught in the park having sex with somebody,’ and if I let it slide it’s never going to die.”
Davis added, “Maybe they’ll just say other things about me, but they’re going to think twice before they make up lies on me or anybody else.”