Craigslist Court Decision
Tuesday, a federal district court in Chicago dismissed a suit charging that craigslist’s housing listings violated the Fair Housing Act. This is a very significant decision for online real estate services and users.
In February, the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued craigslist for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act, citing a hundred housing ads posted on chicago.craigslist.org over a six-month period (out of 200,000 ads total). The Fair Housing Act outlaws any advertisement “with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation or discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability or family status,” and holds newspapers and other media outlets liable for publishing discriminatory ads. The defense relied on another federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that no provider of an “interactive computer service” will be deemed the publisher of information posted by a user.
The plaintiffs found support from a Department of Housing and Urban Development memo asserting that the CDA does not overrule the FHA, and from a brief filed by the National Fair Housing Alliance. Several Web heavyweights, including Amazon.com, AOL, eBay, Google, Yahoo! and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, weighed in to support craigslist in the case.
U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve ruled that, under the CDA, craigslist was not liable as a publisher of the allegedly discriminatory ads. For its part, craigslist has always stated that it has “no need to hide behind this well-established immunity.”
“[craigslist is] extremely proud of the extraordinary results the craigslist community has achieved in ensuring equal housing opportunity on an unprecedentedly massive scale, while fully respecting constitutionally protected free speech rights. Discriminatory postings are exceedingly uncommon, and those few that do reach the site are typically removed quickly by our users through the flagging system that accompanies each ad.”
Certainly this is not the last word on the issue. The Chicago Lawyers Committee plans to appeal to the 7th Circuit, and in the interest of justice, the Committee (and HUD) can always go after discriminatory advertisers themselves. Still, this decision is a major victory for craigslist and self-policing real estate communities on the Web. Craigslist’s combination of user education and community self-moderation provides tools to combat housing discrimination without dampening the powerful consumer benefits of the craigslist service. As Deborah Platt Majoras, chair of the Federal Trade Commission, said last week, “On the Internet, consumers appear to reign supreme, and they can be very powerful and tough customers.”