A California judge has denied Web forum Topix.com's request to withhold identifying information for 178 anonymous online commenters who are the targets of a defamation suit.
The ruling, filed with the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, Calif., Friday, denied the company's motion to quash the subpoena and instructed it to meet with the couple filing the defamation suit to determine which documents are relevant to their case.
In February, a Texas judge ordered the Web site to turn over identifying information about the anonymous posters who had attacked the couple after they were accused of sexual assault.
Although the new ruling denied the company's motion to quash the subpoena, it granted the company's motion for a protective order "to protect the identities of the anonymous Internet posters."
Despite the qualified decision, Mark and Rhonda Lesher, the Clarksville, Texas, couple who filed the lawsuit in February, said the ruling brings them closer to identifying, and prosecuting, the anonymous detractors who they claim posted thousands of defamatory comments about them online.
"I'm tickled to death," Rhonda Lesher said. "I'm thinking we may now get to the bottom of this."
William Demond, the Leshers' Austin-based attorney, said he was pleased about the court's decision.
"It says they must comply with the subpoena and figure out which information is relevant," Demond said. "We intend to move this thing forward pretty quickly. There's no reason not to."
But, Topix CEO Chris Tolles, who filed the motion to quash the subpoena because he said the company found the Leshers' request for information "overbroad and burdensome," said the ruling didn't outright order the company to turn over identifying information and opened the door for a middle ground.
"It's not a slam dunk for either one here," Tolles said. "There's a negative effect on their ask because the judge has qualified it in some way."
Pointing to the judge's decision to grant the protective order, he said, "We got some of what we wanted. ... What will end up happening here is some compromise. The judge's order does not compel us to turn everything over to them."
Mark Lesher, 62, and his wife, Rhonda, 49, first made news in Texas when the couple, along with a man who works on their ranch, were accused of sexual assault by a woman in their small northeast Texas community.
Before the three were indicted on the charges, a steady stream of attacks on the Web forum Topix.com started to flow.
In January, a jury found the couple and their ranch hand not guilty on all charges.
Since reports of the rape allegations began to surface last year, more than 25,000 comments, on about 70 threads related to the trial, have been posted on Topix message boards for anyone with a search engine to see.
Rhonda Lesher runs a successful day spa and her husband is a prominent attorney. But comments on Topix, which have no basis in fact, Mark Lesher said, accuse the couple of murder, encouraging pedophilia, drug abuse and other "horrendous" crimes that materially attack their characters.
Although the couple feel vindicated by the not-guilty verdict, the couple said the anonymous posters who have made their lives "torture" should be held accountable for the damage they have done.