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'Anonymous' Posters To Pay $13 Million For Defamatory Comments

Publication Date: 
April 24, 2012
ABC News
Ki Mae Heussner and Susanna Kim

Director of Privacy and Robotics at the Center for Internet and Society M. Ryan Calo spoke with Ki Mae Heussner and Susanna Kim of ABC News on a recent online defamation lawsuit and the effects that the decision may have on free speech over the Internet.

A Texas couple who filed a defamation lawsuit over three years ago against anonymous posters on the Internet forum won a $13.8 million judgment from a jury.

Mark and Rhonda Lesher of Clarksville, Texas, filed a suit against anonymous commenters who accused them of being sexual deviants, molesters, and drug dealers on Topix, once self-described as "the country's largest local forum site."


Ryan Calo, who teaches privacy law at Stanford Law School and is joining the faculty at the University of Washington School of Law, said the $13 million figure "strikes me as a very large award."

"Defamation is one area of law in which a jury or court have to figure out how much damage has been done," he said. "It's not a car accident where you can calculate medical bills and how much work was lost after an injury. There's something more ephemeral in a reputation."

For that reason, defamation awards "run the gamut from small to large."

"Everyone knows people say crazy things on the Internet, especially when they do it anonymously," he said.

Given the large amount of the award, Calo said it could have a chilling effect on legitimate speech.

"If the award is upheld, then people will think twice about what they say," he said.