Earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed against Craigslist, the popular online service, that some of its classified ads were discriminatory.

The Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under sued craigslist for 100 allegedly discriminatory ads posted by Chicago users in a 6 month period, out of 200,000 housing ads submitted to chicago.craigslist.org in that timeframe.

Samples of discriminatory ads submitted by the plaintiff include:

  • prefer christian roommate
  • near St Gertrude’s church
  • Buddhist temple nearby
  • vibrant southwest Hispanic neighborhood offering great classical Mexican culture, restaurants, and businesses
  • Great apartment for graduate students, married couple, or small family
  • wants one nice quiet person
  • very quiet street opposite church
  • Walk to shopping restaurants, coffee shops, synagogue

…of course there were other much more graphic ad listings as well that I am not going to list here.

The case pitted two significant acts against each other [Ch Trib]:

The 1968 Fair Housing Act bars housing discrimination, and newspapers and other publishers of ads deemed discriminatory can be held liable for violating the law.

But the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA), in an attempt to promote unfettered free expression online, shields web forums from liability for ads and opinions posted by their users.

In other words, as an “interactive computer service” Craigslist is not considered a publisher of information because it gets it from others and therefore are protected by the CDA.

In the Inman news [Subsc] story of the ruling:

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on Sept. 20 issued a policy memo concluding that it is illegal for Web sites to publish discriminatory advertisements, and instructing regional directors to continue to investigate such allegations.

“Some Web sites assert that they are exempt from liability under (the Fair Housing Act) because of a provision in the Communications Decency Act which limits the liability of interactive computer services for content originating with a third party user of the service,” wrote Bryan Greene, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for enforcement and programs. “However, HUD has concluded that the (Communications Decency Act) does not make Web sites immune from liability under the Fair Housing Act or from liability under state and local laws that HUD has certified as substantially equivalent to the Fair Housing Act.”

In her decision, St. Eve called the memo “unpersuasive” and a “non-binding agency opinion” that does not carry the weight of a regulation.

The ruling does open the door to creative legal manuevering if websites could be held liable for third party content for reasons other than publishing and the courts follow this ruling rather than the broad immunity web sites have enjoyed to this point.

I have the feeling this is not over.

Update: Craigslist Discrimination Lawsuit Thrown Out/Major Defeat For Internet Companies [Litigation Blog]

One Response to “Courts Rule: Craigslist Publishes, Therefore Not Liable”

  1. WT Economist says:

    (…of course there were other much more graphic ad listings as well that I am not going to list here.)

    I should hope so, or this should have been laughed out of court.

    There is a big difference between saying “vibrant Mexican community” and “walk to synagogue” and “no Mexicans” or “no Jews.”

    And since when was it not allowed to prefer to do business with those who were “nice” or “quiet,” or to live with such people. Only “prefer Christian” roommate comes close to being questionable.