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Harriman attorney Donice Butler is fed up with anonymous comments being posted about her on Topix.com.
So much so that she’s talking about filing a lawsuit against the website.
“I’ve had it with people getting away with it,” she said. “If it were true, then the people who are saying it ought to have the courage to say who they are, and how they can prove it.”
Topix allows commenters to post in forums under pseudonyms. Butler said the targets of abusive and defamatory posts have no recourse because the anonymity the website offers allows users to avoid identifying themselves.
“If you are going to make vicious, malicious, damning statements about an individual, at least have the guts to say who you are instead of being a coward and hiding behind fake names,” Butler said.
Topix CEO Chris Tolles predicted any lawsuit filed against his company will be unsuccessful.
“In the nine years we’ve been in operation, we’ve been named, I believe, in a small handful — two or three lawsuits,” Tolles said. “Each time we have been taken off that lawsuit because there’s no standing.”
Tolles cited Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
“Certainly we are not responsible, and the law is pretty clear about that,” Tolles said.
Butler appears determined to do something about the anonymous comments posted about her.
“If and when I file my lawsuit, I’m going to demand during the discovery process the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses of the people who are disparaging me,” she said.
According to its website, Topix LLC is a privately held company with investment from Gannett Co. Inc., The McClatchy Co. and Tribune Co. All three are newspaper companies.
Cities as large as Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston and as small as Harriman, Kingston and Rockwood have forums on Topix.com.
“By giving everyone access to the tools to talk – and an audience to listen – Topix redefines what it means to make the news,” Topix claims on its website.
Butler said the only things Topix has redefined are ways for people to libel and defame anonymously.
“I know we have a right to free speech, but we don’t have a right to spread malicious falsehoods about people with no repercussions,” Butler said. “I’ve had it with people getting away with it. We do have defamation laws in this state and in this country.”
Tolles said Topix tries to keep libelous comments off its website.
“Let me also point out that I have no legal reason that I need to do that,” he said. “I could just leave everything up and it would be better for my business in some ways to leave everything up, but we take our stuff pretty seriously.”
Tolles said Topix, which is based in Palo Alto, Calif., also provides a feedback system where people can report abuse.
“If you put a cogent piece of feedback together and say, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening. I don’t like it. Can you please remove it because of X,Y and Z.’ Chances are, we’re going to read that and take action,” he said. “We’re not unreasonable people.”
Butler is not the only local in the public eye to have anonymous comments posted about them on Topix.
Former property assessor Teresa Kirkham accused current Property Assessor David Morgan of posting derogatory comments about her on Topix under a fake name.
Kirkham claimed she had proof it was Morgan, but when asked to provide it to the Roane County News, she didn’t.
“I don’t have time to worry about Teresa Kirkham,” Morgan said, when asked for a response to Kirkham’s claims. “I’m too busy being property assessor.”
Julia Hurley was the subject of several Topix forums during her two-year tenure as a state representative for Roane and parts of Loudon counties.
“I guess everybody needs an outlet to complain,” she said.
Hurley said she’s not a fan of Topix.
“First of all, I don’t have the time that it takes to make up a fake name and whatever else it takes,” she said. “I’m a little envious of the people that have that much extra time, but even if I did, I’m not so sure that I would do that. I think being slanderous of other people or other people’s situations or anything a long those lines is negativity that you shouldn’t invite into your life.”
Despite the opinions some have about the site, Tolles is adamant that Topix provides a valuable service for communities across the country.
“We live in a society where people finally have the ability to say what they want,” he said. “I think it’s important for us to preserve that right.”