Topix won't protect identity of blogger named in Hawkins County libel lawsuit

Jeff Bobo • Jan 13, 2013 at 8:45 AM

ROGERSVILLE — Topix.com is a place where anyone can be anonymously criticized online, but Topix CEO Chris Tolles told the Times-News Sunday the libel alleged in a Hawkins County lawsuit file last week is not condoned by his Web site.

And pertaining to that lawsuit, the unknown defendant’s identity will not be protected by Topix, Tolles added.

Last July, three threads were started on the Rogersville Topix online message board claiming that a man and woman were caught having sex at Crockett Spring Park in Rogersville.

The threads were later revealed to be a hoax, and the incident never happened.

Last week, Hawkins County Clerk of Courts Sarah Davis filed a $200,000 lawsuit in Hawkins County Circuit Court against an anonymous blogger posting under the name “luvs2walk” who posted libelous claims about her on one of those Topix threads.

Tolles told the Times-News Sunday that if directed by subpoena he will reveal all information at his disposal regarding the identity of “luvs2walk.”

“There’s something about the Southeast where sexually salacious libel seems to be a tool of gossip, much more so than other parts of the country, which is disturbing,” Tolles said. “We are pretty sensitive to that. If someone asks us to take it down, we’ll do it quick, and try to take down the entire thread.”

Tolles said that if a person believes he or she has been libeled, and communicates that to Topix, an offensive thread will be removed.

Tolles noted, however, there was a misunderstanding last week when Davis’ attorney, William Phillips II, attempted to give “luvs2walk” a public legal notice about the lawsuit on Topix.

As a reply to the allegedly libelous post, the official public legal notice stated “luvs2walk” has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit in Hawkins County Circuit Court or the court will subpoena Topix 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.

This past Wednesday, the public legal notice was deleted from Topix in less than a minute on each of three tries to post it. Phillips subsequently suggested that Topix might be added as a party to the lawsuit.

Tolles said the notice was probably automatically filtered out because it had a phone number, address or other type of personal information which Topix doesn’t allow.

“If the lawyer had actually written us a letter or gotten in touch with us in any way, we would have certainly allowed them to post something,” Tolles said. “We would have probably told them how to do it.”

Tolles noted, however, that neither he nor Topix is responsible for the actions of third parties on his Web site, and he doesn’t believe he or Topix could be held legally liable.

“The Communications Decency Act is pretty clear about how this stuff works,” Tolles said. “We are not legally obligated to actually review any complaint coming in or moderate that at all. You can leave up a site and let anyone say anything, and not be responsible.

“But, we don’t do that. We actually go the extra mile, and we have a full-time staff of people who look at (complaints). We’re not trying to run a free-for-all. If people have a legitimate issue we can go in, look at it, and if need be, remove it. We remove thousands of threads every day.”

There are Topix Web sites in 5,000 communities across the country receiving about 120,000 comments per day. If someone complains to Topix about an offensive thread, Tolles said it will be addressed by his staff in 24 to 48 hours.

But, postings are only reviewed by Topix staff upon request or complaint. Tolles said he relies on the community to bring bad threads to his attention.

And contrary to popular belief, it is no longer necessary to pay Topix for prompt deletion of “topics” or “threads.”

Until about a year ago, someone could pay to have a certain thread of postings moved up on the timeline of being reviewed for deletion by Topix staff, but Tolles said there now is no fee to report an offensive thread and request its removal.

“A lot of it isn’t libelous,” he said. “It’s just a person having an opportunity to vent their opinion. If you live in a small town, where else do you get to bad-mouth a cop. Oftentimes what gets public officials or police upset is when someone accuses them of being slightly corrupt.

“That’s what being American is all about — being able to make vague accusations against public officials. It is totally fair game to cast vague aspersions toward our public officials, and if you’re an elected official, you should be able to handle some heat.”

Tolles noted that there will always be people who will post something nasty on Topix.

He added, “It comes down to, consider the source. If someone is going to anonymously snark at you, don’t take it so seriously. If someone is taking it over the line, we’ll take a look at it, but people do have the right to say silly things on the Net.”

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