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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.

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.

In June, an anonymous poster said she was fired from her job at Korbel after she reported being sexually harassed by a superior. In July, several posts accused Korbel of planning to cut down ancient redwoods on its property to make room for more vineyards, according to the lawsuit.

Other posts said Korbel bribed law enforcement and court officials to keep the business out of trouble.

Some of the postings cited in the lawsuit make veiled references to Richie Ann Samii, estranged daughter of Korbel owner Gary B. Heck.

Samii and her husband are named in a lawsuit filed by two former Korbel employees accusing the couple of sexually assaulting them at the winery in 2006. The wine company has not been named in the suit, and the couple deny the charges.

Samii also has fought with Heck over a family trust fund and rights to a company-owned ranch where she raised horses and zebras. Samii moved from the Guerneville ranch in April following a partial settlement of the dispute.

Some of the Craigslist posts allege the winery has prevented Samii from retrieving her animals since she left the property.

That's not true, Korbel said.

Samii's attorney, Guy Calladine, could not be reached for comment.

Korbel's lawsuit says the Internet postings are part of a conspiracy to defame the winemaker. "Korbel does not and has not cut down redwood trees and has no plans to do so," Fahn said.

Korbel "has no knowledge" of company retaliation against employees who reported sex harassment, he said.

Korbel was founded by Bohemian immigrant Francis Korbel and his brothers in 1882. It was incorporated in 1903 and grew into one of Sonoma County's largest wineries. The Heck family acquired the business in 1954 and has expanded it to include Kenwood Vineyards, Valley of the Moon Winery and Lake Sonoma Winery.

Korbel is now the 12th-largest U.S. wine company with reported sales of $159 million in 2007.

You can reach Staff Writer Steve Hart at 521-5205 or steve.hart@pressdemocrat.com.

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