BY KEN LITTLE
In the opinion of Greeneville lawyer Robert Foster, Topix.com has the potential to be a force for good in the community, but, he believes, some people persist in using forums and message boards on the Greeneville Topix website to post lies, innuendo and damaging information.
Last week, Foster asked for and received a court order to allow depositions to be taken of Topix, LLC officers, along with "other corporations, businesses, entities and individuals," in order to identify sources of the damaging postings, including Internet Protocol (IP) addresses.
The words of some people in postings of Greenville Topix threads amount to nothing less than "emotional terrorism," Foster said.
Circuit Court Judge Thomas J. Wright granted the order on May 24.
Foster is undaunted in taking on the national news aggregator site, which is particularly popular in smaller cities and rural communities.
"We want these folks to know that they can't hide behind an anonymous screen name and destroy people's lives, and we as concerned citizens are stepping up and trying to address that issue," Foster said.
TOPIX CEO RESPONDS
Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, said in a telephone interview this week from California that he is not familiar with allegations about the Greeneville site, and that Topix cooperates with courts and law enforcement to help identify those responsible for damaging threads that constitute "cyber-bullying" or are particularly damaging to an individual or entity, "if there is a valid court request."
"The piercing of anonymity should be done as a last resort," Tolles said.
"The court system works. If you think something is really egregious, you can sue someone and find out who they are. Our system is set up that way."
POPULAR IN 'FEUD STATES'
Tolles defended the right of Topix users to post whatever opinions they deem fit. He has said in the past that Topix is very popular in what he calls "the feud states."
"It is the local watering hole. Gossip happens there. We are willing to take things down (if) someone goes over the line, but we are not going to take things down just because it makes people uncomfortable," Tolles said.
As he spoke with a reporter Tuesday afternoon, Tolles sat in his Palo Alto, Calif., office and scrolled through the Greeneville Topix website. He noted there were 300 users online at that time.
"We are used by lots of people for lots of things, and we try to be a good corporate citizen," Tolles said. "We have a feedback system. There are ways you can reach out to us."
Besides, Tolles said, "A lot of gossip turns out to be true, so who am I to say you can't talk about your neighbor?"
Free speech and First Amendment issues are just some of the legal challenges that could come up in an attempt to compel Topix to give up IP addresses to identify individual posters.
"The Topix.com site has certain limitations as far as suing them for anything going on at their forum," Foster said. "At the end of the day, we don't know who to sue yet."
The primary problem with Topix, Foster said, "is, you can go in and create a screen name, then create another screen name and make it look like 150 people are out to get somebody."
Some of the local content on Topix threads "doesn't make our town look good," Foster said.
Gossip and untrue allegations about others "is more rampant in the small towns, and at the end of the day, it is more hurtful in a small town," he said.
Several civil lawsuits in other states against posters on Topix by victims of defamatory comments have resulted in substantial cash awards by juries, Foster said.
"It is a very big issue in this community, although some people may not see it as that," he said.
The state General Assembly has already addressed cyber-bullying, and is looking at ways to regulate postings on sites like Topix, said Foster, who is campaign manager of county commissioner and state House of Representatives candidate Ted Hensley, who has announced that he is making the Topix matter a campaign issue.
"One of our goals, initially, is to start the conversation locally," Foster said.
Foster says he would like to see a registration process for Topix posters so one individual does not make multiple posts using different screen names.
Hensley and Foster have announced that they, along with the co-petitioners in addition to Foster, are hosting what they have termed "a Town Hall type meeting" concerning Topix.com.
The meeting is scheduled for 5:45 p.m. today at Hardin Park.
"The biggest problem with Topix.com is that it is an avenue for multiple deception," Foster said. "I'm not for shutting Topix down. I think Topix can be a wonderful tool for our community."
The request for the depositions is the precursor to possible civil action against those who have put particularly damaging and untrue statements online, said Foster, who is one of four petitioners named on the deposition request.
The other petitioners are Bridgett Foster, his wife; Robbie Britton; and Karen Collins Ottinger.
Foster's website in connection with the issue is http://topixterror.com
Tolles agreed with a Wikipedia profile that said Topix's main userbase "consists of posters from small cities and towns in the United States, particularly those with several thousand or hundred residents. Few people from major American cities use Topix. Topix has a large following in Appalachia, rural areas in the Southern United States, and the Ozarks."
Tolles emphasized that he is not familiar with the specifics of concerns Foster and others may have with Greeneville Topix postings.
"If it's anything legal, chances are I'm going to respond," he said.
The bottom line, Tolles said, is, "The people who are saying things are the folks in your town."
Foster said others may join the possible civil action, including residents of other states.