Breaking down anonymity

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 18, 2011

Man wins default judgement against Internet defamer

It is a first of its kind judgment in Lawrence County. On Wednesday, Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Charles Cooper awarded an Ironton man $55,000 after he had been defamed on an Internet website.

Earlier this year, Ralph Cox filed a lawsuit claiming unnamed people on the website Topix had posted false, defamatory statements that damaged his reputation.

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Defamation cases are uncommon in this area, and Cox’s case, involving the Internet, is in a class by itself.

Legal experts point out that defamation, even when it is made behind the curtain of anonymity of the Internet, is still defamation and for that matter, that curtain really doesn’t exist.

The Cox case

In March, Ironton resident Ralph Cox filed a lawsuit, claiming four people using fake names damaged his reputation by posting comments on the Internet website Topix.

Topix is a California-based venue that allows users to log onto an area of the website specific to their city and state and then either read and comment on news stories gleaned from local media or start a discussion on a topic of their choosing.

Others on the website may then respond to what they read, starting a conversation that ends only when the comments cease.

The subject matter ranges from seemingly innocuous conversations, such as the best cellular phone service, to less wholesome interests: the behavior of various local residents who are named, even if their detractors are not.

Blush easily? You might want to skip Topix. But this site is by no means in a class by itself. People have been harassed and humiliated on Facebook and other social networks. They can also harassed by email and on the comment boards of local media websites.

Judge Cooper said slander, or its published version libel, is “an untruth that holds a person up to ridicule.”

Cox hired attorney Brigham Anderson to help him bring his detractors to heel. Anderson subpoenaed Topix for the Internet provider (IP) address of the people making comments about Cox.

When he got the information he subpoenaed, he learned all four people were actually using the same IP address, registered to Mark Vaughan, also of Ironton. It has not been established whether one person used several screen names to post the defamatory comments or whether more than one person used Vaughan’s computer.

Vaughan was unable to be reached for comment. No one answered the telephone and Vaughan did not have a voice mailbox to leave a message. Later in the afternoon someone did answer the phone and said Vaughan had just left for work.

Anderson said there is an erroneous belief that people can post comments on the Internet, be it Topix or other venues, and, because they make comments under a pseudonym, they can make acidic or even slanderous comments with impunity. He said this is not true as the Cox case shows. Cooper agreed.

“I think the surprising thing is, for some people, that you are not really anonymous when you make these comments,” Cooper said. “They can be traced back at least to the computer.”

Anderson said Vaughan never answered the lawsuit filed against him and did not appear in court for Wednesday’s hearing.

Cooper awarded Cox $25,000 in punitive damages, $25,000 in compensatory damages and $5,000 for attorney’s fees.

“We’ll have a try and collect it,” Anderson said. How? “It depends on what assets he has.”

Cooper said if any lessons can be learned from this, it is that silence is preferable to legal action.

“Sometimes we have to fall back on the Golden Rule about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Cooper said. “If you wouldn’t want those kinds of remarks made about you, don’t make them about somebody else.”

Cooper said he did not know of any other such lawsuits in Lawrence County although there is a similar one pending in Kentucky.

Still, allegations of Internet defamation and even threats do appear from time to time in police reports and other legal actions.

Schooled in technology

It used to be that kids could be bullied or embarrassed by what was written on the walls and doors of school restroom stalls.

Nowadays the technology is such that the besmirching of a person’s reputation can go far beyond the schoolhouse walls.

For some, the Internet is replacing the bathroom stall as the chalkboard of choice among teens who have an axe to grind with their peers.

Darrell Humphreys, principal at Symmes Valley High School, said cyberbullying has not been a big problem at his school and that staff tries to nip any potential problems in the bud at the start of each school year talking to kids about bullying and social networks and how comments posted on the Internet can be damaging to another person’s feelings.

“You can’t see the hurt in someone’s eyes when you post on a social network,” Humphreys said. “It takes the human element out of it and makes it much more brutal.”

Humphrey said when parents come to him with complaints about what goes on after school between students regarding social networks and hurtful comments, he directs them to the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, which has a school resource officer who may handle such complaints.

And all schools in the county have installed filters on their systems to keep students from accessing social network sites and other inappropriate sites while at school. Some districts also take other precautions to keep the Internet a solely educational tool and prevent inappropriate communications.

“It has caused us to not have school email accounts; some schools do. When I was at Wheelersburg maybe 12 years ago we did (have student email accounts) at the high school,” Ironton Superintendent Dean Nance said.

Not a new phenomenon

History is full of examples of defamation, particularly against prominent figures. How they handled these moments depends on the era and the people involved.

Robert Leith, professor of history at Ohio University Southern, said three things kept gossip from spreading too far in the early days of our country.

Most people did not travel far from home, meaning the juicy stories they might have about a notable individual’s drunkenness or philandering was more likely to stay in a small area.

Also, the media was not as prevalent as today; newspapers were not always available in small cities.

Electronic media did not make its presence known and felt until the 20th Century. And often the public adoration of political figures kept people from either spreading or believing stories about the person’s alleged misdeeds.

An example of this would be allegations of John F. Kennedy’s infidelities that were not widely discussed until after his death.

“You know, John F. Kennedy, there were all those rumors and for the longest time he got away with it,” Leith said.

Still, some stories did manage to make it to public domain.

In 1884 Republicans, intent on keeping Grover Cleveland out of the Oval Office, disseminated a story about the then-bachelor Cleveland fathering a child out of wedlock.

Cleveland took responsibility for the child but never married the mother. His detractors made up a chant about the matter they put in political cartoons. Cleveland, in the face of scandal, owned up to it, saying he could have been the child’s father.

Other public figures caught in embarrassing situations took different approaches.

Leith said Warren G. Harding laughed off rumors of his having fathered a child out of wedlock during an alleged encounter with the child’s mother in a cloakroom of the U.S. Senate.

In May 1806, Charles Dickinson, who disliked Andrew Jackson, had published a newspaper story impuning the reputation of the future president’s wife, Rachel. Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel and killed him.

“This was probably the second most famous duel in the history of the country,” Leith said, “the first being that of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.”