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Craigslist Not Bound By Fair Housing Law in Online Ads

Back in June, Legal Blog Watch posted about a pending lawsuit against Craigslist, a popular online ad board. The Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights filed suit against Craigslist, alleging that it had published more than 100 ads in the Chicago area that violated Fair Housing Law.   

But as the Chicago Tribune reports, Craigslist is not liable for housing ads (11/15/06). According to the article, federal Judge Amy St. Eve found that Craigslist is shielded from liability under the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Explains the article:

the CDA says that a provider of an "interactive computer service" can't be treated as a publisher of information it gets from others.  Craigslist is indeed an interactive computer service, a conduit of  information provided by others, Judge Amy St. Eve said in a written opinion that effectively dismisses the case. Thus, under the 1996 communications law, Craigslist can't be treated as a publisher, she wrote in the decision, which was filed Tuesday and then circulated Wednesday by attorneys involved in the case.

The Chicago Lawyers' Committee plans to appeal St. Eve's ruling. However, the article notes that at least two appellate courts that have found that the CDA affords broad immunity to online fora.   

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster posted this commentary on the suit:

While craigslist takes fair housing issues very seriously, and we want to do everything we can to assist our users in promoting fair housing for everyone, the 100 ads cited were a little surprising. Some were roommate ads involving constitutionally protected speech and the right to free association, such as "prefer christian roommate", or were ads containing incidental and harmless remarks such as "near St Gertrude's church," and "Buddhist temple nearby." Others simply celebrated the diversity and tolerance of the local community ("vibrant southwest Hispanic neighborhood offering great classical Mexican culture, restaurants, and businesses"), or sought to appeal to some groups without excluding anyone ("Great apartment for graduate students, married couple, or small family"). And for a few it is difficult to determine what protected classification is at issue ("wants one nice quiet person")....

Though possibly well-intentioned, this lawsuit ignores the essential nature of craigslist, demanding that we cease treating our users with trust and respect, and instead impose inappropriate, mistake-prone, and generally counter-productive centralized controls (such as manual review by our staff of the nearly 2 million free housing ads of unlimited length posted each month, a volume of ads greater than that received by all US newspapers combined), controls which would actually be less effective in catching discriminatory ads than what we have in place currently, and which would vastly reduce the number of legitimate non-discriminatory ads that the site could process.

Perhaps years ago, suits like that of the Chicago Lawyers Committee opened up doors for victims of discrimination. But now, with the Internet, protected groups have more opportunities than ever to search for -- and seek out -- housing. Moreover, because of Craigslist, information about affordable housing, as well as housing where protected classes are welcome -- are more widely disseminated than ever before. That's a goal that civil rights groups ought to support.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 17, 2006 at 07:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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