The Internet giant Yahoo Inc. and consumer opinion board RateItAll had until Friday to release the identities of five people who sent out anonymous Internet communications about Columbus' Cascade Hills Church and its pastor, the Rev. Bill Purvis. An order seeking the identities was signed Oct. 31 by Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Doug Pullen.
RateItAll's top executive said late Friday that he has not received the order from Pullen, and a spokesperson for Yahoo did not confirm whether the company had received it either.
Four e-mails were sent from Yahoo accounts. One posting is on RateItAll.com, which contains message boards on everything from products to preachers. Both companies are based in California.
The order Pullen signed is called a motion for order of discovery. The four-page document indicates the companies had 30 days to release information about the senders. The document states the church would like to know the senders' names, addresses, Internet Protocol addresses and Internet Service Provider numbers.
Never miss a local story.
If the identities become known by the church leaders, they will then "ascertain whether or not further legal action is needed," the document states. As in most cases investigating Internet content, the church's concern is defamation and "tortious acts." A tort is any damage, injury or a wrongful act done willfully, negligently or in circumstances involving strict liability, according to Webster's.
"I recollect I signed it," Pullen said. "As I recall there was some former employee who had taken some intellectual property and was supposedly using it (against the church)." Intellectual property could include copyrighted material owned by the church such as video, audio or computer files.
In addition to Pullen, William Arey, a Cascade Hills member and Columbus attorney, signed the motion. Arey did not return phone calls this week seeking comment. A church employee said Purvis, who has led the church since 1983, was out of town and would not be back until next week.
Lawrence Coburn, CEO of RateItAll, said in an e-mail Friday that his company had not received the court document.
"We have only received a handful of requests for people's identities since we've been online," he said. The site was launched in 1999.
Julie Han with Yahoo's corporate communications office did not confirm whether Yahoo had received the document.
"Unfortunately, we are not at liberty to discuss any subpoenas or requests like this that are in motion," she wrote in an e-mail.
An e-mail sent
The four e-mail addresses used for Yahoo were chctruth4u, oldcascademember, bassmaster9993 and fearsnot. The RateItAll poster went by justthefactsmam.
Briana Ogletree used firstname.lastname@example.org. Ogletree left the church early this year after being a member about four years. She said her e-mail was sent to about 30 people, including Cascade Hills staff, informing them about the church's recent certificate of restated articles of corporation, signed by Purvis on Aug. 8. The restated articles are on the Georgia secretary of state's Web site, for which Ogletree provided a link in her October e-mail.
The document states the church's Board of Directors "shall be the highest ecclesiastical tribunal of the church, and shall be the final arbiter of all questions of church doctrine, church discipline, church property, church policy, and church polity of every kind and nature whatsoever."
The president of the Corporation known as Cascade Hills is Purvis. The registered agent for the nonprofit corporation is William Spud Warr. The board consists of Warr, Michael Patrick and Keith Williams. Warr owns a grading company in Smiths, Ala.; Patrick is the CEO of Carmike Cinemas Inc.; and Williams is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker, Kennon, Parker, Duncan & Key. The document further states that the "Corporation elects to have no members. Any action which would otherwise require a vote of members shall require only a vote of the Board of Directors . . ."
In the previous church bylaws, "each active member has a right to vote in all elections and on all questions submitted to the church concerning church business."
In alerting people to the change, "I don't feel like I have done anything wrong," Ogletree said. "This seems kind of ridiculous. I think they've overstepped their boundaries." The church, which faces the J.R. Allen Parkway near River Road, claims 8,000 members and lists 36 employees on its Web site.
After weighing the possible consequences of sending the e-mail, she said, Ogletree sent it.
"If I were a member, I would like to know about this new board of directors," she said.
She imagines one consequence of her now-known identity: Her husband, Roy, may be asked to leave the church's band. She said that's why she didn't use her real name. Ogletree said she established the fake name on Yahoo for just the one mailing.
In an October online interview with Richard Burkard of columbusga.blogspot.com, Purvis "dismissed an online e-mail campaign against his board, describing it as 'almost laughable.' '' It's unknown if this alleged campaign is related to the people in the court filing. Purvis also said he vetoed a church attorney's suggestion to sue one of the rumor-spreaders.
"In an extensive conversation after the 6:00 p.m. worship service (Oct. 6)," Burkard wrote on his blog, "Bill Purvis told your blog he only learned about the e-mail campaign against his church board in the last couple of days. He openly wished the e-mailers would 'find something to do --- get a life, you might say.' ''
Ogletree said that not long after she sent her e-mail, she could no longer access her Yahoo account. Yahoo is not the Internet company she uses normally.
This move by the church is unusual, according to a number of attorneys. Typically, such an order includes a lawsuit filed against the person or people. This one does not. A motion for discovery would seek additional information for a suit. In the case of an unknown identity, the defendants might be listed as Jane Doe 1 or Jane Doe 2.
"It's odd to me. There should be a case pending. They normally have to file a suit," said Thomas Cotter, professor of law at the University of Minnesota School of Law who wrote earlier this year about anonymity on the Internet for the Notre Dame Law Review.
"This is what's called a pre-suit discovery," Pullen said. "It's not common but it's not rare." He could not recall signing such a motion for a church before.
He said a lawsuit could take years and might be a waste of time if nothing of interest turns up.
"If it'd come to a suit, I'd have chest pains," he said. "I don't enjoy (church fights)." He decided to sign off on the order, which Arey brought to him, because he considered it "a prudent and reasonable request," he said.
Pullen and Purvis have known each other since at least the 1970s when Pullen was the district attorney. He is on a testimonial video of Purvis' called "Turning Point," in which he recalls Purvis surviving a 1974 stabbing.
Cotter is unaware of individual congregations that have taken action to acquire real identities from the Internet. However, he did cite a distantly similar case --- the Church of Scientology's long-standing practice of suing people and organizations, namely over copyright infringement on the Internet.
Cotter's article, co-authored by Lyrissa Lidsky of the University of Florida, is titled "Authorship, Audiences and Anonymous Speech." It confronts the relatively new world of litigation over anonymous e-mailing, posting to message boards and blogging.
Despite the Internet's youth, anonymous e-mail messages and postings are generally protected by the First Amendment, according to the Notre Dame article, additional writings and attorneys familiar with such cases. Plaintiffs in suits can assert the Internet messages are defamatory --- libel in written form and slander in speech. (Defamatory speech is technically classified as blasphemous, treasonable, seditious or obscene.) A line is crossed when someone threatens harm, even anonymously.
A public figure like Purvis, however, would have to further prove malice in the Internet messages. That's because of the oft-cited 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case, New York Times v. Sullivan. Malice means that the person who made the statement (or Internet communications in this case) knew the statement to be false, or issued it with reckless disregard to truth.
The term "public figure" is broader than celebrities and politicians. For example, "RealTime with Bill Purvis" airs Saturday nights on WLTZ-38 and also on national TV outlets such as the Church Channel, Daystar and INSP. The Cascade Hills Web site says 394 million people each week listen to his sermons through the "RealTime" show.
Additionally, Bill Purvis Ministries sells recordings of the pastor's sermons and other inspirational messages, and offers subscriptions for his leadership messages. Podcasts of his sermons can also be downloaded off the Internet.
Ogletree said she doesn't know the other senders, or the person who posted to RateItAll. The RateItAll person wrote about a type of 2005 Hummer, an SUV. The comment follows others about the kinds of cars Purvis and his wife drive, and whether Purvis is a good pastor or not.
Ogletree, who doesn't know what might come next, said the experience hasn't shaken her faith. She doesn't worship anywhere now.
"God will take care of this," she said. "I struggled with sending the e-mail --- am I just trying to stir up trouble? But one man or one church's decision does not change my faith. It makes me disappointed in (Purvis). For a while, he was my spiritual leader."
Contact Allison Kennedy at 706-576-6237