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Web of Betrayal

Should Web sites be held accountable for what they publish? What if the person they slandered were you?

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Todd Hollis never claimed to be an angel. Like most of us, he says, he's made mistakes in the dating arena.
Unlike most of us, his mistakes ... actual and alleged ... have become fodder for news stories, television talk shows, blogs and courtroom arguments.

Hollis, 38, says he didn't set out to become nationally known when he tried to remove anonymous posts about himself from a Web site. But in trying to clear his name, he's been thrust into the national spotlight. Suddenly, the world wants him to answer accusations that he has herpes (he says he doesn't, and his lawyer says he has the medical tests to prove it); that he's a slob; and that he's gay or bisexual (just not him, he says, though there's nothing wrong with it).

For most folks, gossip is ephemeral ... a snide word in the break room, or a foul epithet on a bathroom wall. The gossip about Hollis could have faded, too. It didn't have to be the top result when you Google his name. It didn't have to be the subject of recently taped episodes of Dr. Phil and Geraldo. But in a sense, Hollis has chosen to take on not just a Web site but the entire Internet. All because he couldn't leave unchallenged the venom posted about him online.

*** 

Tasha Joseph believes she's a crusader, a champion of women's right to free speech. The 33-year-old public-relations consultant in Miami had a column about school issues in the Miami Herald for seven years. Then came the idea that put her into the national spotlight, resulting in segments on CBS's Early Show and NBC's Today show.

Joseph decided to harness the massive power of the World Wide Web to create a global database of cheaters, liars and dogs. Seven months ago, she launched the sassily titled DontDateHimGirl.com, a searchable database where women can anonymously warn other women about men who leaned more toward frog than prince.

The site was a huge success: Joseph says it averages 600,000 hits and a thousand new posts each day. It is, she says, "a public forum where women can gather and share their dating experiences with other women," she says. "Women should not have their speech censored."

And what does the uninhibited voice of this online sisterhood sound like? A few recent posts ... all about Pittsburgh-area men ... suggest an answer:

THIS NIGGA GOT A DIRTY INFESTED DICK WIT HERPES AND EVERY OTHER STD. SO WHEN YOU SEE THIS NIGGA RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN, DIRTY BITCH

wow another walking std, what a whore 4 kids and counting!! 3 different babies mom. lives off of females, always always broke, be with females for years cheating then he'll just up and leave you for his mistress. ugly ass bitches though. and he loves to beat women it runs in the family and he likes men .that's what 2 yrs in jail for domestic violence will do to you and he pays transvestites on the low but i wont tell nobody else

Ladies Stay Far Away!!!!! This nigga seems cool when u meet him treats u great but when u really get 2 no him its a wrap! He Played the shit outta me we fucked he told me he loved me and next thing u kno he was tellin me he was in love wit my friend and he wasn't feelin me no more hes nasty he fucks anything and everything and never wraps things up! Then he got my friend pregnent and made her get a abortion and didn't pay 4 shit. Ladies stay away from him he's a waste of time!

The site invites men to "Post Your Side of the Story," and sometimes posts erupt into spirited (read "obscenity-laden") arguments. But few of the men themselves respond, or give any sign of knowing that the post, or the site, exists. By her own admission, Joseph does nothing to notify them ... or to ensure that any of what's said online is true.

"It's impossible for me to check the veracity of every statement posted on my Web site," she says. "I don't feel any responsibility toward that."

Then, in late May, came the posts that would put the site, Joseph and Hollis in the spotlight.

EXHIBIT A: This guy is a trip. In fact, screw trip, he's a DOG. He dated one of my friends ... that was before she found out that he had dated half of Pittsburgh ... He frequents the clubs and tries to fly under the radar because he's got such a bad rap ... he is believed to have HERPES. Stay away!

EXHIBIT B: I used to date this guy and heard that he was gay, I'm quite sure he is bi. I remember his father George asking him if he was.

EXHIBIT C: Do NOT DATE HIM. He gave me an STD and dated 2 people at a time.

EXHIBIT D: Dark and handsome ladies, he looks like a chocolate dream. Until you get to know him. His crib is a dump. He wears dirty clothes all the time. He got hook-ups in every zipcode in the USA. He's hot ... DON'T LET HIM FOOL YOU GIRL.

The above exhibits were taken from posts made about Todd Hollis on DontDateHimGirl.com. Since June 28, they've also been evidence in the case of Todd J. Hollis vs. Tasha C. Joseph, Anna Doe, Barbara Doe, Catherine Doe, Deborah Doe and Emily Doe, Carolyn Meritt Lattimore and Alesia Roskov.

In May, Hollis, a criminal defense attorney, got a call telling him about the site, and the appearance of his name there. As his friend and paralegal, Kj Swan, recalls, when he saw the posts, "He was devastated. He cried."

And then he started thinking about suing.

Hollis says that after the first post appeared, on a Thursday in late May, he contacted Joseph. He told her she had until noon that Friday to remove it, or he'd sue. The post came down by the deadline, and Hollis thought that was that.

But another post about him had gone up by the following Monday.

So Hollis sued, for $50,000 in damages, plus punitive damages and court costs. He's also filed a complaint with the city Human Relations Commission alleging sex discrimination: The site discriminates against men, he says, by allowing women to post instantly and anonymously. Men can post rebuttals, but Hollis contends that happens only if Joseph approves them. (Joseph denies this, saying rebuttals go up instantly, like any other posts.)

"It needs to stop," Hollis says. "It needs to stop now because it's hurting people. Where you draw the line is when you start making references to my personal life."

Hollis says he knows who two of the posters are. He says that Carolyn Lattimore posted Exhibit A, though he says he's never met her and acknowledges, "I don't know what [her] motivation is." A woman Hollis says is a friend of Lattimore's gave a deposition implicating her, he says, on condition that she not be named in the suit.

Hollis says he dated Roskov, who worked at the coroner's office with his father, George Hollis, for a few months; Hollis contends the specifics of Exhibit B prove Roskov posted it.

Hollis is suing Joseph and her Web posters for defamation, and insists the suit is not about the money. He says it's about the decline of civility, about standing up for himself and his family.

"This terrifies my mother," he says. It's been hard on him, too: He says he's lost clients over it, and forget about spilling his troubles to a lady-friend. The dating scene for him is pretty nonexistent these days.

"I think my mental health has changed," he adds. "I suffer depression and anxiety issues. It happens a lot when I retell the story." He finds solace in physical exertion, the one place he says he can escape.

"We're not speaking to responsible society here. I will always stand up for me. At the end of the day, my reputation is all I have."

And he never would have sued, he says, if the allegations were true. "What idiot would?" he asks. "If in the end it's going to come out that you have herpes and you're gay, why do it?"

Good question. If Todd Hollis wanted to protect his reputation from these allegations, why make a big deal out of them?

DontDateHimGirl.com has profiles of 15,000 men ... finding the accusations made against Hollis takes some digging. Or at least it used to: Now when you Google Hollis' name, the screen fills with news articles and Web sites about the lawsuit. Why didn't he just ignore the gossip, knowing time would erode it from the public consciousness?

For Joseph, the answer is simple. Hollis, she says, is simply suing for money and recognition. "Todd could have sued me to unmask the identity of the posters, to get a temporary injunction to have the postings removed. He went straight ahead and sued me for money."

"I didn't look for this lawsuit," counters Hollis. "I come from the old school that if you stand for nothing, you'll fall for anything. When you come into this world, the only thing you'll leave with is your name, the reputation you created for yourself. That someone can come in and anonymously take that is reprehensible."

If his lawsuit is a win-win for anyone, he says, it's Joseph. The average guy would never have the time, money or inclination to go through with a lawsuit. But now that a lawsuit has been filed, she's profiting ... more mentions of her site in the media mean more clicks. And that means more bucks from the site's advertisers.

"This is not about Ms. Joseph protecting the rights of women or exposing the indiscretions of men," Hollis says. "This is strictly about money. The more controversy, the more hits, the more money. She likens women to a sisterhood. What, my momma ain't a part of her sisterhood?"

So why file a suit that helps raise the profile of Joseph's site? Hollis says he's speaking for a brotherhood ... men who may have been falsely denounced on DontDateHimGirl.com, or anyone slandered elsewhere on the Internet.

"I think that what everyone should realize is that what has happened to Todd Hollis specifically could happen to anyone," he says. "If Ms. Joseph's actions are allowed to stand, potentially we're all at risk."

***

Defending the accused is nothing new for Hollis, an attorney in private practice. He had to fight hard to get there, having flunked out of Central Catholic, graduated from Taylor-Allderdice, and clawed his way through Duquesne Law. He is nothing if not tenacious: In November 2005 he made headlines for completing a triathlon ... a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a standard 26.2 mile marathon back to back ... just months after donating a kidney to his mother.

Hollis' modest Downtown office features a huge framed copy of the Declaration of Independence, a security camera, a Bible and a copy of Darwin's Descent of Man. Behind his desk, over the course of a three-hour interview, Hollis runs the gamut of emotions. Sometimes he slumps in his chair, brow wrinkled. He has a tendency to refer to himself in the third person, by first and last name.

At one point he gets up and pastes Post-It notes to the wall with messages on them. "Todd Hollis is a bad guy," reads one. He then places another note underneath, saying "I'm not a bad guy." This is like the Web site, he says: Rebuttals are also-rans, and the initial, uncensored trashing gets top billing.

Hollis isn't alone feeling this way.

"I probably get five or six calls a week from guys who've been defamed," says his attorney, Jack Orie. Some, he says, say the accusations against them are worse than those leveled against Hollis.

But there's a difference between Hollis and those other guys, says Hollis' childhood friend, LeRoy Smith. "Other guys in the same position don't have the means or the know-how" to defend themselves, Smith says. "These are the guys he wanted to speak for."

Smith, who now lives in Delaware, has known Hollis since they were 3 years old. He says it's tough to figure out why anyone would trash his friend.

"I think a lot of people see Todd, they see him as an attorney, they see him on TV [during trials]. ... Women see a man with a good job and looks halfway decent, they want to be with him." For such women, Pittsburgh offers "slim pickin's," he says ... and perhaps a few women got mad when they failed to catch Hollis' eye.

Then again, Smith says, it took Hollis until college to really open up to a social life. He was a late bloomer, Smith says, so the stuff other guys had done in their teens, Hollis was trying out in his late twenties.

"I am not above reproach when it comes to dating more than one woman at a time," Hollis says. "I've made mistakes in dating." But that's a long way from being bisexual or having herpes, he says. And Joseph, he says, should be held accountable for posting such allegations without doing anything to verify them.

It certainly can't be news to Joseph that visitors to her site might misrepresent themselves, or those they post about. This isn't even the first time posts on DontDateHimGirl.com have caused waves in Western Pennsylvania.

While Joseph claims she doesn't take posts down, despite getting calls to do so all the time, she did remove one involving a local man earlier this summer. According to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Robert Joseph Panek, of Ambridge, had a problem with Matthew Maritz, a Robinson police officer. Panek posed as a woman on DontDateHimGirl.com and trashed Maritz. He reportedly e-mailed his fake posting to Melina Citero, a woman he's been accused of stalking and who is acquainted with Maritz.

When state police presented Joseph with the evidence that the posting was false and part of an investigation, she removed it. "Obviously I would have to do something in a case like that," she says.

Hollis says that Joseph should have proof for the accusations on her site before publishing them for everyone to see. And if Joseph had published the allegations about Hollis as a Miami Herald newspaper columnist, he'd have a strong legal argument. If he could prove that the statements were false, harmful, and made with a "reckless disregard" for their accuracy, he'd have a strong libel case.

But instead Joseph published these remarks on her Web site. The accusations there may hurt just as much as they would have if they'd been published in a newspaper. But on the Internet, the law is not on Hollis' side.

"The woman who runs the site will probably win the case," says Michael Madison, associate professor of law and associate dean for research at the University of Pittsburgh's law school. Madison takes a special interest in the emerging field of Internet law.

Libel law doesn't apply to an online forum like DontDateHimGirl.com, which passively accepts members' postings and publishes them without review. While the site's terms of use ask posters to be truthful, they also state that the site is not responsible if they aren't.

Joseph and her lawyers ... Robert L. Byer, of Duane Morris in Pittsburgh, and Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, in Miami ... contend her site is protected by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. That provision reads: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." In other words, unlike a newspaper publisher, forum-type sites are not liable for postings made by third parties.

The provision "has been tested many times in many courts," Madison says. "The dominant view of the law is that if you are running a site, you can't be held responsible for what people say."

As an example, Madison cites 1997's Zeran vs. AOL, in which Kenneth M. Zeran was accused in an AOL chatroom of being responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing ... an accusation Madison notes is "far nastier than Mr. Hollis' love life." Zeran lost the case.

And this isn't the only case where Internet sites enjoy protection that newspapers don't. In Chicago, a housing-access group is suing craigslist, the huge online classified list, for publishing classified ads they call discriminatory. One ad, for instance, flatly stated "no minorities."

In a newspaper, such language would likely run afoul of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discriminatory practices by landlords or in advertisements. But while craigslist removed the posts, it, too, is citing the Section 230 protection.

Orie, Hollis' attorney, is not convinced that Section 230 protects Joseph. He interprets the law to protect Internet Service Providers ... the companies that host Web sites ... rather than the sites themselves. Joseph, he says, "is not an ISP. She pays a monthly fee to an ISP. She is a secondary distributor of false information. I don't think [Section 230] protects defamatory activity."

But Orie isn't just suing Joseph: He's also suing those who posted on her site. And Madison says Hollis might have a better case against Lattimore, Roskov and the anonymous "Does."

That is, if he can find them, or prove they actually posted the material.

***

One way or the other, the women named in his suit appear to be trying to stay out of it. Lattimore did not return a barrage of phone messages, and hasn't been successfully served with the court papers yet ... despite multiple attempts by sheriff's deputies to find her, Orie says.

Meanwhile, Alesia Roskov has countersued Hollis. She wants her name out of the case. "It's dragging [her] name through the mud for no good reason," says her attorney, Daniel P. Beisler.

Beisler acknowledges that his client dated Hollis, but says there's no way Roskov made the posting. His surmises that Hollis may have discovered an IP address from the computer network at the coroners' office, where Roskov works. Roskov herself didn't return numerous phone calls, and Beisler said, "I don't think she's interested in talking about this to the public."

As for the "Does" named in his suit, Hollis still doesn't know who they are. When asked if she knows their identities, Joseph offers a giggle and says she has no comment.

Even if she does know who they are, it's unclear whether she will have to reveal the information.

"You have a right to speak anonymously ... that's First Amendment, it goes all the way back to the Federalist Papers," says Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group devoted to protecting free speech on the Internet. The cloak of anonymity, Jeschke says, is crucial to making the Internet a huge marketplace of ideas.

Madison, however, notes that there is a precedent for revealing the identity of anonymous Internet critics. In 2003, Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Joan Melvin sued to unmask the operator of the Grant Street 99 Web site, where she alleged defamatory comments about her had been made. The local court sided with Melvin, saying that the blogger had to reveal himself. The blogger appealed, and Melvin dropped the case before the appeals courts made a final decision. Her attorney was her brother, Jack Orie ... the same Jack Orie who's representing Hollis now.

But the Grant Street 99 case was different, because the statements were being made by the Web site operator himself, rather than a third party.

"The mere fact of a lawsuit [may not] overcome the First Amendment protection to anonymous speech," Madison says. Before courts will require a poster's identity to be revealed, "You have to have something specific and credible to say this anonymous person caused you harm."

Still, even a free-speech absolutist like Jeschke says "speaking anonymously doesn't protect you if you break the law." And Hollis and Orie are banking that the alleged slanders ... about Hollis' health, sexuality and tidiness ... are defamatory enough to compel Joseph to reveal who posted them.

Of course, the posters are private citizens, presumably without big bucks. At best, a successful suit against them would largely be a moral victory.

But, Todd Hollis says, that's really the only kind that counts.

***

If the courts fail to deliver justice to those maligned on the Internet, there are even higher authorities to consult. Like Dr. Phil.

Two weeks ago, Hollis and Joseph finally met in person on the set of the pop psychologist's show, for an episode set to air in early October.

In fact, their dispute has been taking place in the public eye since the day Hollis filed it. When he served Roskov with notice of his lawsuit, for example, he did it in front of Channel 11's cameras.

Since then, he and Joseph have appeared together via satellite on other talk shows, and they've both given numerous newspaper and magazine interviews. Fittingly, the case is being discussed at length in the blogosphere. Legal blogs take up either side of the case and weigh its implications for Internet case law; you-go-girl personal sites laud Joseph as a hero and trash Hollis further. There's even a thread on the message board of the MTV generation's cad emeritus, Tucker Max, mocking Joseph and most any woman who'd speak out against a man.

Both Hollis and Joseph agree that in the bald doc's house, Hollis won the day. Hollis said it was because he's right. Joseph says it's because Dr. Phil had come to his conclusions ahead of time.

"I think that [Hollis] did an Academy Award-winning performance," she says. "I think that Todd once again fooled the public."

"The show was good," Hollis says. "The show was great, as a matter of fact." Swan and Orie both say Hollis got a cathartic release from facing Joseph in person.

But in the end, Joseph may come out on top, in part because she's more at home in the treacherous waters of the Internet.

At one point during the Dr. Phil taping, presumably to make a point about Internet gossip, producers projected a fake Web site, TheTruthAboutTashaJoseph.com, on a screen behind her. Joseph says it took her awhile to notice it, but the "site" painted her as wealthy and grasping. It mentioned a Jaguar (which she says was bought long before DontDateHimGirl.com), and characterized her fiancé as a high-powered attorney. It also reported that she owns a fabulous mansion in Los Angeles, which she denies.

But Joseph didn't sue Dr. Phil over it. Instead, after the taping, she bought the made-up Web site address. She plans to use it to launch a pro-First Amendment site at the address just before the show airs.

Since the suit became big news, she says, other accusations have been levied against her ... some of them by Hollis. Several law blogs have comments on them signed by Todd Hollis making allegations about her past ... namely, that a failed marriage left Joseph bitter and hateful toward men. Hollis has made similar allegations in interviews.

"What he posted is not true," she says. "Anything I've done, whoever I married in the past, that's my personal business. It's not relevant." And, she says, she's no man-hater: "I totally believe there are great guys out there. I'm engaged to a great guy, I believe in true love. I also believe there are guys out there who shouldn't be swimming in the dating pool.

"If you Google my name, people have called me everything from lesbian to bitch," Joseph says. "Am I going to go back and sue everyone who called me a name I don't like? I will to the end defend people's rights to say things."

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