Lawsuit Cracks Open Online Anonymity
Small town gossip mill jolted from the Internet to the courtroom.
Feb. 27, 2009— -- Steven Jones is an opinionated guy.
And when he reads something online that strikes a particular nerve, chances are he'll speak up.
So, when the 54-year-old from Texarkana, Texas, came across an article about a couple in neighboring Clarksville who were charged with sexual assault, he decided to throw in his own two cents.
Using the screen name "Wounded," Jones posted one of thousands of anonymous comments about the case. Others went further, linking the couple to perverted sex acts, drugs and other crimes.
Earlier this month, Jones, a disabled truck driver, logged on to learn that the Clarksville couple, cleared of the charges, had turned around to file a lawsuit of their own -- against 178 anonymous commenters, including Jones, who they claim posted defamatory comments on the Web forum Topix.com.
Now that a Texas judge has ordered Topix to release identifying information for the posters by March 6, Jones, who revealed himself to ABCNews.com, is preparing to meet the couple in person -- in court.
Early last year, Mark and Rhonda Lesher, along with a man who works on their ranch, were accused of sexual assault by a woman in their small northeast Texas community.
But before they had even been indicted on the charges, a steady stream of attacks on the Web forum Topix.com started to flow.
The Leshers and their accuser live in the rural Texas town of Clarksville, population 3,500. Because talk of the trial -- online, at the local Dairy Queen and behind closed doors -- had set off such a stir, it was moved to a county a few hours away.
In January, a jury found the couple and their ranch hand not guilty on all charges.
But since reports of the rape allegations had begun to surface last year, the "conversation," rife with snarling anonymous commentary, exploded online.
More than 25,000 comments, on about 70 threads related to the trial, now live on Topix message boards for anyone with a search engine to see.
Rhonda runs a successful day spa. Mark's a prominent attorney. But if you Google "Mark and Rhonda Lesher," brace yourself for a storm of smut.
"Child molesters." "Rapists." "Drug dealers." "Herpes infested." And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
The couple feels vindicated by the jury's verdict. But "not guilty" means nothing to the Internet, where dirty laundry lasts forever, especially if it isn't true.
"The one thing we have is our reputation and credibility," Mark Lesher told ABCNews.com. "From the time I was indicted in April, my business fell off to just almost zero. It really just went to zero. I mean who's going to hire someone accused of rape?
"But it's not just the indictment itself," Lesher said.
The comments, which have no basis in fact, Lesher said, accuse the couple of murder, encouraging pedophilia, drug abuse and other "horrendous" crimes that materially attack their characters.
"The people who have hid behind the anonymity of the Internet need to be held accountable and brought to justice," Lesher said.
The 62-year-old lawyer said that he and his wife, 49, have been active members of the Clarksville community for years, recently lobbying to make the town's Main Street a historic landmark.
But "these nine months of torture" have taken their toll.
"My wife said she's lost her joy," Lesher said. "She held her head up high, but it's hard. When things get repeated over and over and over again, people say it's got to be true."
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