Should Korbel sue Craigslist?

February 24th, 2009

Soap Box. From:

Soap Box.

The top story on today focuses on a lawsuit filed by Korbel Champagne Cellars. While many in the blogging world will see this as corporate intimidation or strong-arming, I think the case offers important lessons for web site, blog and forum owners and operators.

I am not defending Korbel, nor am I taking sides in this matter. Nonetheless, free speech is one thing and slander is another.

The internet and its forums are often a platform for attacks. Web site owners and blog and forum operators should be mindful of the potentially libelous or damaging nature of posts made by visitors and community members.

In this case, according to the article Press Democrat article indexed by, Craigslist members leveled some heavy-duty allegations against Korbel including:

punishing employees who reported sexual harassment… plotting to cut down redwood forests on its Guerneville property…[and bribing]…law enforcement and court authorities to keep the company out of trouble

Korbel has fired back and is seeking and injunction from a Sonoma County court to make known the identities of those Craigslist visitors and commenters who made the allegations.

According to the article, these types of defamation suits are growing in frequency. Rightfully so. In this country, we all have the right to face our accusers. That applies to individuals, businesses and corporations.

The internet is believed by many to be a virtual Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. Erroneously, most think of Speakers’ Corner as a place where people can stand on a box and make all sorts of assertions and allegations. The truth is that even in Speaker’s Corner, one has to be responsible about what they say and how they say it. Beyond serving as a caution to individuals who frequent and comment in web forums, this case raises another issue: operator liability.

I think that bloggers, web site and forum owners and operators carry a liability for the content generated by members and visitors. Recent stories about MySpace and Facebook filtering content and removing certain members indicate a very real legal foundation to this notion. It is conceivable that one could become a proxy target in a defamation lawsuit for allowing unsubstantiated allegations – particularly if those are made by individuals who appear anonymous.

Free speech is protected when those who exercise the privilege own their statements and do not hide behind a veil of anonymity. In an already litigious society, no blog, forum or on-line community operator can afford to allow attacks which are backed by no more than allegations.


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5 Responses to “Should Korbel sue Craigslist?”

  1. Morton Leslie Says:

    In this particular case, where someone is accusing another of a crime, particularly if there is not, “it is alleged” or even “a friend told me he thought that…” it is not just “free speech.” Free speech is saying that Korbel makes crappy sparkling wine.

    It appears Craigslist has already handed over the IP address in that Korbel knows that the IP addresses are from Comcast. Craigslist won’t be sued now, and Comcast will turn them over, I am pretty sure, after notifying the customer.

    I also think that Korbel would normally not pay attention to this sort of gossip except for the fact that they might possibly have a suspicion who the person is. I certainly would be interested were I Korbel, given what has transpired in the recent past. If I am not mistaken there was a serious Myspace incident (alleged in court documents) with a family member “calling her father a vulgar name and displaying an image of a kitten sighting down the scope of a rifle pointed out a window.”

    I would want to get to the bottom of these allegations. Even if it is just a disgruntled employee. They should have to stand up and prove such libelous accusations.

  2. Josh Says:

    While your analysis is generally spot on (I would argue that freedom of speech is much, much more than a “privilege”, it is an inalienable right), I think it misses the point a little.

    If Korbel is so concerned with the harm done to their public image, why would they continue this PR nightmare just so they can extract their pound of flesh?

    Now they have a whole new set of people angry with them for trying to strip some anonymity away from online communications. You can argue about the merits of being anonymous on the net, but the fact is there are many tech savvy wine drinkers out there they feel very passionately about privacy. And now those people have a reason to hate Korbel. This is an unmitigated disaster for them.

    If they were harmed financially, that’s a shame. Hiding behind anonymity and casting stones is a chump move. But I have a feeling this is more than business; its personal and emotional. Not a good mix.

  3. 1WineDude Says:

    Great points being made here.

    Freedom of speech is a right. Defamation is not – no matter what the platform. Let’s see the evidence…

  4. John M. Kelly Says:

    I’ve got two words for everyone: whistle blower. Anyone consider that the anonymous allegations might fall under the umbrella of whistleblower protection?

    Arthur says: “In this country, we all have the right to face our accusers.” That is true, when one has been charged in a court of law with a criminal act. Korbel has not. To suggest that they have a right to confront their accusers at this stage is premature. For us to take at face value Korbel’s assertion that the allegations are baseless is equally premature. Libel is civil redress that the corporation has a right to pursue once the allegations are proved baseless.

    Now on the other hand, if the anonymous allegations of criminal activity have any basis in fact, the poster(s) on the Craigslist forum have simply been idiots. Note to whistleblowers – blogs and fora are not the place for it! Make your complaints to law enforcement, or better yet – to a sitting Grand Jury.

  5. Arthur Says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for commenting.

    My main interest in this story revolves around the issue of liability exposure carried by the operator of a blog, forum or other web site where visitors and members contribute content and ideas. I have seen other bloggers redact comments (not mine) because they were potentially libelous. This incident with Korbel illustrates the potential risk of allowing unmoderated commenting.