The top story on Winebusiness.com 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 Winebusiness.com article Press Democrat article indexed by Winebusiness.com, 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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