Wine giant accuses anonymous critics of defamation; case could test free speech on Internet

In a case that could test the limits of free speech on the Internet, Sonoma County's Korbel Champagne Cellars is suing anonymous critics on a Craigslist message board, saying their false statements are hurting the century-old company's reputation.

The postings accuse Korbel of punishing employees who reported sexual harassment. They also contend the winery is plotting to cut down redwood forests on its Guerneville property.

"They are completely and absolutely false," said Terry Fahn, a Korbel spokesman.

Korbel is seeking damages and an injunction barring the unidentified writers from posting libelous comments on the popular Web site. The company will not say if it has obtained the names from Craigslist.

Defamation has become a hot issue with the explosive growth of the Internet, which gives ordinary people a chance to post comments anonymously to a worldwide audience.

Craigslist, founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark as an e-mail list of events in San Francisco, has grown into one of the busiest sites on the Internet. It hosts online forums and classified ads for more than 550 cities around the world. More than 50 million people use Craigslist every month to discuss events in their communities and browse its classifieds, where you can find everything from jobs and housing to sex services.

Like many online forums, Craigslist allows users to post comments anonymously and doesn't screen postings in advance, creating a free-for-all atmosphere that tolerates insults and slurs.

Craigslist retains the right to remove objectionable material, but also warns users that it is not responsible for the content in its forums and classified ads.

"You may be exposed to content that is offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading or otherwise objectionable," according to its terms of use.

Korbel has worked with Craigslist to remove the offensive comments, Fahn said. He wouldn't say whether the champagne maker has asked Craigslist to reveal the names of the posters.

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