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Robert Trigaux

Hey 'money34202': Gevity's looking for you



Micihaellavingtonceogevity Wake up and good morning. Okay -- I'm talking to you, "money34202" -- just fess up your identity, apologize profusely to the company you obviously maligned, go away quietly and all is forgiven.

Right. Like that's going to happen. Bradenton-based human resources firm Gevity Inc. is upset over what it claims are false statements about its demise. So it's filed a lawsuit against an unknown Internet message board user -- that would be "money34202" -- as a strong statement that it has no plans to close. So reports the Bradenton Herald this morning. The story says Gevity officials, led by CEO Michael Lavington (in photo), filed the defamation lawsuit against “money34202” for, they say, making untrue statements about the company’s closure plans on a Yahoo! Finance message board in November. We know nothing about "money34202" except we assume the "34202" portion of his/her name is a zip code in the Bradenton area.

Gevity's wandering into a hornet's nest in which "free speech" advocates will condemn the company for interfering in the discourse on a message board. Already this week, the Yahoo! Finance message board on Gevity is taking sides, as this online poster named "junebugskii" offers support in a posting on Feb. 5 to "money34202" here:

"Shame on them for trying to intimidate a poster on the board who is giving his/her opinion. If one follows these boards enough they will learn that in many many cases the negative posters turn out to be prophets that if listened too, would have saved you money!"

For those not familiar with Gevity, it offers HR outsourcing services to small businesses. It calls itself a PEO or "professional employer organization," and typically provides services like payroll processing, access to health and welfare benefits and workers' compensation coverage. The company, struggling like many in a rough economy, in late January said it would cut costs by $19 million by cutting 10 percent of its employees, among other steps. Its stock currently trades at $2.28.

Most publicly traded companies, like Gevity (ticker symbol: GVHR), have public online message boards dedicated to them that allow shareholders, gadflies or other folks to post comments about the company using anonymous online names (like "money34202"). Some message boards are more active and more serious than others, to say the least.

Gevity's not the first and won't be the last to face harsh criticism or false information about the business on Internet message boards. And it's not the first company to up the ante by hiring a lawyer and going after a specific online poster on a message board. I wrote about the silliness of many message boards in a 2001 column. And this 2000 column I wrote "The fight to speak their minds, anonymously"), when message boards were far less mature, reminds us how messy it gets when free speech and corporate rights collide.

On Gevity's Yahoo! Finance message board, the old "money34202" appears to have disappeared. But now the same user with an altered name "money_34202" -- note the underline makes it slightly different -- seems to be back. We'll watch this legal spat to see how it turns out. (Photo courtesy of Gevity.)

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:23am]


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