It's time, once again, for the Popehat Signal.
This time I'm seeking help for people sued or threatened with suit by Suburban Express, a Chicago-area shuttle bus company servicing local colleges.
I wrote about Suburban Express back in April; that post is prelude to this one. In short, Suburban Express and its owner, Dennis Toeppen, threatened critics with lawsuits and used boilerplate in its ticket contracts to file a slew of small-claims actions in another county, apparently hoping to leverage the distant and inconvenient location into an easy win over its targets, who were mostly college students. It appeared, for a time, that Suburban Express and Toeppen had reconsidered their course, dismissing the small claims suits and pledging to amend their practices.
That conclusion was premature. Suburban Express is threatening students right now. They require help.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
I explained before that Suburban Express was furiously retreating in the face of a public relations disaster. That retreat was temporary.
Since I wrote my post in April, other writers have reported on new hijinks by Suburban Express and Toeppen. Techdirt reported on how Suburban Express, through new counsel, is now asking an Illinois court for a do-over, saying that its small claims cases in Ford County (including its defamation suit against one critic) should have been dismissed without prejudice, meaning with leave to re-file there or elsewhere. Suburban Express now claims that those cases were filed with prejudice — meaning, permanently — in error back during the period that Suburban Express was trying to rehabilitate its reputation and slow down the Streisand Effect.
Suburban Express' motions are set to be heard in Ford County tomorrow, July 30, 2013.
Ars Technica has reported that Dennis Toeppen has been using Freedom of Information Act demands to the University of Illinois trying to identify his online critics and discovery information about them. There's more here at Reddit.
Techdirt also reported that Suburban Express and Dennis Toeppen have used their website to attack Jeremy Leval, the young man whose criticism of Suburban Express set of its last paroxysm of threats and litigiousness. I have seen at least one other instance of Suburban Express posting its "side of the story." But in the case of Mr. Leval, Toeppen's intent appears to be to revile a litigation opponent.
I am a firm advocate of the more speech remedy to disfavored speech. Suburban Express is pursuing a more-speech remedy by attacking its critics online. It may be a rather questionable strategy from a public relations standpoint as a business, but it's better than suing over criticism — or it would be, if it weren't part of a campaign that includes lawsuits. Similarly, the Freedom of Information Act is an important tool that citizens can use to prevent unwarranted government secrecy. However, it can also be used to harass and to pierce internet anonymity in order to file frivolous lawsuits.
Despite their retreat last Spring, Dennis Toeppen and Suburban Express now have at least four pending legal threats against critics.
First, Suburban Express seeks to revive their thoroughly bogus and abusive small claims case against Jeremy Leval.
Second, Suburban Express, though new counsel, is threatening an online commenter "Katherine C." with a defamation suit. The threat letter — redacted to remove her personal information, because she has not agreed to disclose it — is here. Suburban Express threatens to sue the young woman for, among other things, posing the rhetorical question "Do you really feel comfortable having your credit card information on file with these people?" That's a clear rhetorical statement of opinion, and my answer — based on what's disclosed in my posts and the other public coverage — is a resounding Hell, no. Someone, possibly a process server, has been skulking around Katherine C.'s home and office. She may have been sued already. Edited to add: a tipster informs me that Suburban Express has sued Katherine C. in Champaign County, seeking an injunction. Seeking an injunction in a defamation case is often a good indicator of frivolousness. Second Edit: I now have a copy of the complaint; update at end of post.
Third, Suburban Express has been threatening the moderator of Reddit's University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign subreddit. Suburban Express, through their lawyer, fatuously takes issue with the subreddit's heading, which previously said that Suburban Express is "likely to sue you" if you patronize them. This is astoundingly clearly protected rhetoric; Suburban Express' stubborn statistical analysis that 125 lawsuits does not make one against any given customer "likely" is sanctionably ridiculous. The letter is also replete with what I've come to expect from Suburban Express, Dennis Toeppen, and their lawyers: contempt for their customer base. In what amounts to projection, Toeppen likes to spin any criticism as narcissism, saying that the reddit moderator "apparently seem[s] to enjoy this attention." Toeppen has also written to me "Your coverage is giving a handful of young people an inflated sense of self-worth, Ken." This "you're just children doing this for attention and because you have nothing better to do" theme is common from Toeppen (and, in my experience, from other internet cranks faced with criticism).
Fourth, Suburban Express has used its new law firm to threaten another student for defamation, this time going as far as to include a draft complaint. That complaint is based on the student telling his version of events in a confrontation with a driver; Suburban Express has a different version of events. It's difficult, in light of the pattern of conduct of Suburban Express and Dennis Toeppen, to believe their version of events about nearly anything, but I don't have first-hand knowledge of what happened. However, it's clear that the threatened defamation suit is part of a pattern of attempted intimidation of critics.
Accusations of Sockpuppetry
Suburban Express has had its defenders as well as its critics. They've used various means. Suburban Express' Wikipedia page has been the site of an ongoing struggle to delete criticism. One Wikipedia editor who added critical material found her user page edited to add the second sentence in this description: "I am new to editing Wikipedia. I have a Conflict of Interest with Suburban Express stemming from my interactions with them on the UIUC subreddit. I am asian, female, and angry." Did Suburban Express have anything to do with that? Well, consider my exchange with Dennis Toeppen asking him that question:
Ken: Were you the one who edited a Wikipedia user page to say this about a user, apparently because you believed you had identified the user?
"I am new to editing Wikipedia.
I have a Conflict of Interest with Suburban Express stemming from my interactions with them on the UIUC subreddit.
I am asian, female, and angry."
Dennis Toeppen: I don't see that.
I am neither asian nor female.
Ken: So, it's your position that you didn't write that?
Dennis Toeppen: You didn't send me a url.
Ken: You need a url to tell me whether or not you wrote that?
Dennis Toeppen: If I were your client, would you advise me to answer a question about something I have not seen? I imagine not. So shoot me the url.
Draw your own conclusion. Otherwise, his correspondence with me expresses views of Wikipedia consistent with his disgust at his client base:
Wikipedia seems to have degenerated into somewhat of a social-media site and hangout for teen and twenty-something wannabes, with a dash of mature adults mixed in.
In response to reports that pro-Suburban-Express edits at Wikipedia were traced to IP addresses associated with Suburban Express, Dennis Toeppen told me this:
It is the case that some Wikipedia activity was from IP addresses registered to my company. Keep in mind that we have several computers in driver and student employee areas for their use, an we have wi-fi which is used by transient occupants of a driver apartment which we maintain.
So, a drifter with an iPad probably did it.
I asked him to comment on recurring allegations that he uses aliases to attack critics and competitors on Reddit:
Do you have any comment about whether you, or people acting with you, have been using pseudonyms on Reddit to comment? For instance, have you or people working with you commented as "totallyanonymous2"?
His response was somewhat coy:
I think anonymity online leads people to do things which they would never do out in public. I would like commenters to be compelled to provide their real names. I would support legislation which seeks defeat anonymous online commenting. I am willing to spend my own money in support of that goal. Nevertheless, I support off-the-record interactions between legitimate journalists and sources.
Who Acts Like This?
Why would Dennis Toeppen act this way?
His online activities may constitute classic "more speech" but they are nigh-suicidal for a business that depends on goodwil. The same can be said of his use of FOIA to unmask critics. His company's approach to customer service is loathsome; he runs the sort of company that responds to a call about a lost purse by saying "If it was so important, why did you lose it?" He seems incapable of comprehending how he sounds to his audience. In another context, this excerpt from Suburban Express' terms might seem whimsical; in light of Toeppen's pattern of conduct, it merely smacks of his contempt for his customer base:
Cellular Phone Usage
In the interest of the sanity of those around you, cellular phone usage is limited to 3 minutes per passenger per trip. If you feel compelled to yack for more than 3 minutes, please move to the restroom to do so, or put the call on speakerphone so that everyone can hear *both* sides of the conversation. Having problems with your boyfriend? Other riders will help you out!
In short, he's a failed cybersquatter and a small-time bully who can dish it out, but can't take it. He's a classic internet crank, Ignatius J. Reillying his way through one argument after another, bewailing the necessity of sharing the planet with the stupid and inferior people that bedevil him.
My Call For Help
Dennis Toeppen wrote to me "you're certainly willing to help those schmucks if you want to."
First, the defendants in Dennis Toeppen's existing and threatened suits in Cook County need representation. They are students and don't have money. If you are a lawyer in Cook County [edited to add: or Champaign County], please consider helping out, as many past responders to the Popehat Signal have done. Lawyers in other states may want to back up locals with research, writing, and advice. People like Dennis Toeppen succeed in using litigation as a weapon of censorship because a defense is ruinously expensive to average people; a team of pro bono lawyers can probably make short work of him and his lawyers, and eviscerate his competitive advantage. Could Dennis Toeppen possibly identify a false statement of fact in a story or post about him? I'm not inclined to trust him, based on this evidence, but it's possible. But that determination should be made based on his critics having a vigorous defense, not based on thuggery.
Second, if anyone is close to Ford County tomorrow and can observe and report on the hearing on his request to revive his cases, your help would be appreciated.
Third, spread the word. Actions do, and should, have consequences. If more people knew the way Suburban Express acts, they might not use it, and Dennis Toeppen would face the consequences of his conduct. There's already a boycott movement, and it is difficult to imagine that students would willingly use Suburban Express if they knew its history and had an alternative.
Fourth, remember: keep standing up against censors and bullies of every stripe.
Note: this is not a full exposition of Suburban Express' conduct. That may follow, depending on its actions in these threatened lawsuits. I will be reporting on any filed cases and how they are litigated.
Updated to Add: Thanks to the generosity of readers, I now have several offers of help, some from local attorneys, some from attorneys nationwide who will contribute help, one from a computer forensics expert. However, I can still use help in Champaign County, please, to act as counsel in the case there.
A helpful tipster pulled the complaint against Katherine C., noted above. It's an extremely perfunctory affair; it alleges defamation without specifying any defamatory statement whatsoever, and seeks an injunction requiring the review be taken down and prohibiting the defendant from other "defamatory" postings. Remember my maxim: vagueness in defamation claims is the hallmark of frivolous thuggery.
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