The First Amendment does not protect the “right” to post anonymous comments online that defame the reputations of others. Libelous statements posted in Internet forums can come back to bite those who post them. In most cases, posters will not be able to conceal their identities once the gears of litigation start grinding. A jury in Texas recently awarded $13.78 million to a couple who were targeted by online posters — one of the highest verdicts ever recorded in Texas for an Internet defamation case.
In 2008, Shannon Coyel sought to divorce her husband and gain custody of her two children. She accused her husband of being a sexual pervert and claimed he had abused their daughter. Mark Lesher, an attorney, and his wife tried to help her with her divorce. The Coyels reconciled, however, and Mrs. Coyel then accused the Leshers and their ranch hand of sexual assault. Moreover, she claimed she had only reported an incident of abuse by her husband against her daughter because the Leshers had drugged her with pills.
The Leshers were indicted as a result of Mrs. Coyel’s sexual assault accusation. They also came under attack on Topix.com with some 25,000 comments, many anonymous, posted about them. They were called molesters, murderers, sexual deviants and drug dealers, and were accused of encouraging pedophilia. The Leshers said the attacks were so vicious, they had to move out of their town and Mrs. Lesher lost her business, a day spa. Mr. Lesher lost substantial business as well.
The Leshers were tried and acquitted on Coyel’s sexual assault claim. They then brought a libel suit against those who had posted the comments on Topix.com, naming the 178 pseudonyms associated with the comments they considered the most damaging and promptly issuing subpoenas to uncover the posters’ identities. Topix moved to quash the subpoena as overly broad and sought a protective order to withhold the identities of those sued. A California court granted the motion to “protect the identities of the anonymous Internet posters,” but permitted the Leshers to obtain their IP (Internet Protocol) addresses.
The IP addresses led the Leshers to the Coyel salvage yard. The Leshers amended their petition to focus on Mr. Coyel, his business, his brother, two of his employees, and Mrs. Coyel. The case was tried, and the jury returned a verdict totaling $13.78 million against Mr. and Mrs. Coyel and one of the salvage yard employees for mental anguish, loss of reputation, and Mrs. Coyel’s loss of her business.
It is not unusual for individuals to suffer defamation, threats, having their home addresses posted, and other such attacks, through the anonymity of the Internet. Website owners are generally not required to moderate inflammatory posts and often will refuse to remove damaging content. There is a common misconception that “free speech” includes the right to post defamatory material on the Internet anonymously. This case should serve as a wake-up call to those who would attack others online.