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Craigslist Off The Hook Over Housing Ads

By: David Utter

The US District Court in Chicago has dismissed a lawsuit against the popular online classifieds site, where it was claimed discriminatory housing ads posted by Craigslist users were the responsibility of the website.

Craigslist Off The Hook Over Housing AdsInstead, the allegations made by the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law found no support from the bench, which dismissed the case on November 14th. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster posted about the decision at his website.

"Putting aside the fact that Craigslist legally can not be held liable in this suit," he wrote, "we feel very strongly that the Craigslist community of users is on the very highest moral high ground with respect to fair housing, setting an example more worthy of emulation than litigation."

Buckmaster wrote that the ads singled out for specific attention from the litigants were "a little surprising." Some were roommate ads looking for people like a "Christian roommate," while others contained geographical references like "near St Gertrude's church," and "Buddhist temple nearby."

"And for a few it is difficult to determine what protected classification is at issue ("wants one nice quiet person")," he said.

Websites have generally been held harmless when it comes to content posted by their users. The relevant part of US Code, namely Section 230 of Title 47, holds that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

Silicon Valley Watcher blogger Tom Foremski pointed out how the ruling was not an all-encompassing win for Craiglist:

But in finding for Craigslist, the court rejected the site's argument of unlimited immunity for online providers. The (Chicago Tribune) reports:

"We are heartened by fact that (the judge) forcefully rejected the unlimited immunity advocated by Craigslist," said Laurie Wardell, fair housing director for the Chicago Lawyers' Committee.

Judge Amy St. Eve ruled that Craigslist is immune only if it is treated as a publisher of third party content.

That poses an intriguing question. How would a site like Craigslist, which is comprised of third-party content (ie, classified ads), ever not be treated as such a publisher? As classifieds continue to grow online as an industry, someone will probably test this in court again.

Is Section 230 enough to protect the next defendant in such a case? Share your thoughts on the WebProBlog.


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