Meet John Doe

Trinity Industries certainly wants to, at least when it comes to Internet critics

Only two lower courts have agreed with the ACLU's position, but the organization is confident it will ultimately prevail because John Doe suits, it argues, are so fraught with abuse. "The vast number of these cyber-defamation cases are slap suits whose sole purpose is to shut up defendants," Beeson says. "Most of them are big-guy corporations suing little guys, and it is very unlikely they could get money from these people."

Even if the Trinity Industry lawsuit has no merit, it may have already chilled much of the rough-and-tumble discourse on the Yahoo message board. On September 16, three days before the lawsuit was filed, a Yahoo user, posting under the screen name Pro Pick R, wrote: "Where did everybody go? Used to be 10, 15 posts a day."

Certainly stkhlder3, whose real name is Barbara Penninger, has no intention of ever using the message board again. Rather than contest her identity, she chose to settle with Trinity, who learned that she was a stockholder and a travel agent who had formerly done business with Trinity executives. She had grown critical of Trinity officials after its stock plummeted last year (Penninger refused to comment for the record). As part of her settlement, she signed an affidavit admitting her mistake in publishing "statements that were disparaging to Trinity, its officers, directors, and high-ranking executives." Trinity itself posted the affidavit on the message board.

Perhaps the company had the right idea by posting the affidavit. "The best defense against falsehood is not censorship; it's truthful speech," says Barry Backer, a professor of media and culture at SMU. "If a company believes the truth is on their side, they should use these same technologies to refute these claims instead of ...possibly trampling on freedom of expression."

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