Freedom of speech might be allowed on the Internet, but name calling? Not so much. A jury in Texas has awarded $13.8 million to a couple that filed a defamation lawsuit after being offended on the Internet.
Three years after they filed a complaint against then-unknown users of an online forum, Mark and Rhonda Lesher of Clarksville, Texas are expected to see their bank account balance increase by almost $14 million. That’s close to the judgment agreed on by a jury that oversaw a case in the 348th District Court in Fort Worth, TX. It’s there that the couple claimed that meanies on the Topix.com message boards had antagonized them to the point that they were driven to take legal action. Now some formerly-anonymous Internet trolls will have to fork over millions for allegedly causing mental anguish, loss of reputation and loss of business.
And all the couple had to do was trample on the American Constitution.
"It’s pretty significant," Dallas-based cyber attorney Peter Vogel tells the local ABC affiliate, WFAA TV. Vogel was not personally involved in the case but agrees that the implications it brings will be a big blow to the constitutional rights of Americans down the line.
"People cannot hide behind the First Amendment and say anything they want,” he tells the station.
That seems like enough for the happy couple, though.
"This vindicates us. This is vindication for all the scurrilous, vile, defamatory statements that caused us to be indicted, to be tried, that caused us to move out of town and my wife to lose her business," Mark Lesher says to the Texarkana Gazette. "You can't post anonymous lies on the Internet without suffering the consequences."
The nasty name calling began in 2008 when Shannon Coyel claimed that she was sexually assaulted while on the ranch operated by the Leshers. Months down the road, a jury in Collin County, Texas acquitted the couple of all alleged crimes, but the case was far from over. On Topix.com, a Silicon Valley-based community of message boards that ranks within the top 500 most visited site in the United States, the discussion continued even after the Leshers had been relieved of sex crime charges.
Although the court found the Leshers not guilty, Topix posters had their doubts. Before long over 25,000 comments were published to message boards spanning around 70 different threads. When ABC News covered the story at the start of their trial, they recall Web searches for the couple’s name to return such slurs as “child molesters,” “rapists” and “drug dealers.” Others would even go as far as to say that the couple was “herpes infested.”
"From the time I was indicted in April, my business fell off to just almost zero. It really just went to zero. I mean who's going to hire someone accused of rape?” Mark Lesher asked ABC at the time.
"The people who have hid behind the anonymity of the Internet need to be held accountable and brought to justice.”
Now three years later, a jury is demanding that three of the culprits who own computers matching the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses tied to a handful of the posts be held responsible for the hardships the Leshers have allegedly suffered in the years since acquitted. When the Leshers first started their legal fight, they asked for the real life identities of nearly 200 pseudonyms used to degrade them on the Web. By the end of the investigation, they had linked a computer that connected online to an Internet service registered to Shannon Coyel’s husband, Jerry Coyel, to a handful of the names. Now both Coyels and one of their employers are being told to pay up to the tune of more than $13 million.
Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, tells ABC News that the figure settled on for the Fort Worth couple just seems "a bit overboard."
When ABC approached Tolles at the start of the case, the CEO said he would be okay with a “reasonable solution” to the complaint, but said that speaking freely was the heart of his operation.
"We have a business to run and that does give people the right to speak anonymously," he said.
Not anymore, it seems.