Zoltek, Pulaski battle inaccurate chat on message boards
months, an investor using the screen name "cobrashark2000" posted
disparaging and false comments about Laser Vision Centers Inc. and its
management on the Yahoo! Internet message board.
starting in October, came to an abrupt halt after Laser Vision went to
court this spring. The message poster identified himself June 23 as A.
Smith of Virginia and issued an apology -- via the Yahoo! message board.
is among a handful of local companies that have been zinged by the growing
popularity of Internet stock message boards.
Group Inc., Pulaski Financial Corp. and Zoltek Cos. Inc. also found and
stopped anonymous posters from spreading false rumors.
unfortunate advantage of the Internet is people are more likely to make
a disparaging statement when they are making it anonymously," said
William Donius, president and chief executive of Pulaski Financial, which
operates four Pulaski Bank branches.
don't realize companies can take action and track down these people,"
It's a cumbersome
process, however, that can be expensive, said attorney Robert Hoemeke
at Lewis, Rice & Fingersh. He said his firm has been involved in a
few Internet libel cases involving national companies based in St. Louis,
but declined to identify the clients.
expense associated with it keeps most people from dealing with it,"
For Laser Vision, the cost of finding cobrashark2000 was less than $2,000,
said John Stiles, director of investor relations.
hired attorney Eleanor Maynard of Suelthaus & Walsh to handle the
case. She filed suit March 29 in St. Louis County Circuit Court, accusing
"John Doe, a person presently unknown to the plaintiff" of using
the message board to make false and harmful defamatory statements about
Laser Vision, a provider of excimer lasers used to correct vision problems.
alleged that cobrashark2000 had made: "false statements indicating
the Chairman and CEO of Laser Vision had lied to and misled investors
and shareholders and false statements indicating that Laser Vision's accounting
system is suspect." The suit also said the poster called on federal
authorities to become involved in "this apparent securities fraud."
suit was filed, Maynard said it took three subpoenas to identify cobrashark2000.
to Yahoo! yielded the name of the poster's Internet access provider. A
subpoena to the access provider led to a second Internet service. The
final subpoena identified the message poster as Smith.
a phone call from him once he was served with the papers. He was apologetic
and anxious to do the right thing," Maynard said.
agreed to drop its legal action provided Smith apologize on the Yahoo!
board, said Robert May, Laser Vision's vice chairman and general counsel.
chief executive at RehabCare Group, a health-care staffing firm, had less
difficulty tracking down an Internet poster, who he said was spreading
misinformation about company employees. The poster's screen name provided
enough clues that RehabCare executives could figure out his identity.
had a lawyer contact him regarding the messages. We've heard little from
him since," Henderson said.
chief executive at carbon fiber maker Zoltek, also was able to identify
a company critic, who was posting messages on the Motley Fool and Silicon
Investor boards. Rumy went on the boards himself, identifying the poster.
that things got a little more honest," he said.
Financial, Donius threatened legal action against bank critics on the
Yahoo! message board. In a May 26, 1999, posting, Donius called the critical
messages false, misleading, offensive and irresponsible.
law firm, Muldoon, Murphy & Faucette of Washington, D.C., monitored
the site and asked Yahoo! to remove the messages.
was resolved very inexpensively with our law firm by one or two letters.
We opted not to take action against the individual," Donius said.
Donius' decision to respond online puts him in the minority. Only 2 percent
of companies nationwide respond to false rumors spread through chat rooms
or online message boards, according to a 1998 survey by the Vienna, Va.-based
National Investor Relations Institute.
Bruce Fischman of the Miami law firm Fischman, Harvey & Dutton tells
firms to go on the offensive.
someone is going to speak, they need to speak responsibly. Just because
the speech is on the Internet doesn't elevate it to some higher standard
than the speech that would be in a newspaper or if someone got up in the
town square and started spouting off," said Fischman, who has worked
with Laser Vision and other national firms.
Amendment does not protect Internet message board posters from suits brought
by private companies, because in those cases, it is not the government
acting to suppress speech, said Matt LeMieux, executive director of the
American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. Still, LeMieux has
concerns about the growing number of such suits.
it might tend to stifle the free exchange of views and opinions. As a
a matter of public policy, you don't want people to be afraid to say something,"
Not all companies
dislike the message boards. David Andersen, senior vice president for
communications at Charter Communications Inc., views the message boards
as "the democratization of information."
outside investors have good ideas, said William Canfield, president and
chief executive of Talx Corp. and an occasional poster on the Yahoo! site
At its 1999
annual meeting, Talx provided special name tags and meeting space for
people who regularly post on the Yahoo! site, and the company plans to
do so again this year, Canfield said.
2000 American City Business Journals Inc.