Melissa Meinzer PIttsburgh City Paper Web of Betrayal Should Web sites be held accountable for what they publish? What if the person they slandered were you?
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 abrotherhood — 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.
Hollis, being a lawyer, is smart to sue for defamation over libel. Joseph is probably going to settle this out because if this gets to a jury, she's in trouble. Once she gets on a stand, she's gonna be eaten alive. Dr. Phil spent 20 years as a jury consultant and if he nailed her, a real defense attorney would eat her alive.
Hell, a deposition would be very bad news for her. Why? Her motivations could come under scrutiny, and it only takes a few lawsuits to bankrupt you, win or lose. And appeals are expensive
Why? Her unrepentant nature for one thing. This guy has been defamed and she doesn't seem to give a shit. The law protects her from the comments, but she's probably going to have to give up the IP addresses. Roskov is probably in the worst legal position, because a check of the logs will prove she checked that site and had access to the machine in question. Which could cost her her job and leave the city open to legal action, since she defamed him during work hours.
Also, once she pulled a posting for being false, she now can't say that she doesn't pull posts. Hollis is offering prima facie evidence that these posts are untrue, pulling them would have made sense. Section 230, which allows publishers protection from libel actions if they don't edit the posts, probably applies, but it isn't anything I'd want to test before a jury.
Joseph, who is engaged to an attorney should realize that Hollis's comments about her past is fodder for what he'll unleash during a deposition. He's obviously skip traced her and probably had a PI investigate her as well. He's a criminal defense attorney. If he's talking about her marriage, he's got more on it than he's hinting. She can claim it isn't relevant, but he'll make it relevant. What she seems to be oblivious to is that destroying stories is his job. His daily work is challenging people's versions of the truth.
She's also blind to the fact that he's a very sympathetic defendent. Successful, black defense attorney called gay online when he isn't......and he will make sure to depict her in the most unsympathetic light, as he has managed to do so far.
Joseph should have been far more willing to accomodate his requests than she has been. The First Amendment isn't a license to harm people and he has the ability to cause her great pain. Remember depositions are public documents. His deposition can be pretty wide ranging as well.