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.
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.
Company attorney Steven Bledsoe said in the court filing that, "Korbel's reputation is of vital importance and any material impairment of that reputation directly and irreparably diminishes Korbel's ability to conduct business."
But Korbel's effort to stop online comments could run afoul of the Constitution, according to an Internet speech expert.
"You can't get an injunction to prevent damaging speech," said Matt Zimmerman, senior attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit group that defends free speech on the Internet.
But he noted that Korbel's lawsuit is a step toward gaining access to anonymous posters. Services such as Craigslist have no legal obligation to protect the identities of users who post potentially libelous comments, Zimmerman said.
When presented with subpoenas seeking a poster's identity, Web sites "may find it's not cost-effective to fight," Zimmerman said.
Some cases of Internet defamation have resulted in large damage awards. In 2006, a Florida woman, Sue Scheff, was awarded $11.3 million after a Louisiana woman posted online comments calling her a "con artist" and "fraud." A jury found the statements false.
Craigslist does not comment on litigation, CEO Jim Buckmaster said in an e-mail.
But the service's Web site says it prohibits libelous statements and may disclose user information if it's required by law, including e-mail addresses, IP addresses, time stamps and other personal data.
The Korbel lawsuit was filed Aug. 29 in Sonoma County Superior Court. It names 10 "John Doe" defendants, but says the real names will be added when they are discovered.