This case has been dismissed by the US District Court in Chicago, as of November 14, 2006.
We're pleased the Court agreed that online service providers like craigslist should not be held liable as "publishers" of content submitted by their users, and view this outcome as a win for the general public's ability to self-publish content (such as free classified ads) on the internet.
Just as importantly, this ruling is a victory for fair housing in the city of Chicago, since this misguided suit sought to force craigslist to regress to ineffective and intrusive "horse and buggy" technologies, which would have resulted in a big step backward for fair housing from the industry-leading standard that craigslist users have set through fair housing education and community self-moderation.
A group of lawyers is suing craigslist over a handful of allegedly discriminatory housing ads posted by our users, ignoring the fact that craigslist is not a publisher, but rather a community-moderated commons run by and for its users, who self-publish and manage their own ads and use a flagging system to police the site. These lawyers demand that we impose ill-conceived, mistake-prone, and potentially illegal controls on the craigslist community, which if adopted would actually reduce fair housing opportunity, while eroding important free speech and privacy rights. In reality, the craigslist community already excels at ensuring equal opportunity housing, and continues to improve in this regard, earning praise from fair housing groups. This lawsuit will likely be dismissed as groundless, but more importantly the craigslist community will be recognized for its exemplary record in promoting fair housing for all, while fully respecting each person's constitutional right to free speech and free association.
Background: (about craigslist)
The Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is suing craigslist for 100 allegedly discriminatory ads posted by our Chicago users in a 6 month period, out of 200,000 housing ads submitted to chicago.craigslist.org in that timeframe. 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").
Although in all likelihood this suit will be dismissed on the grounds that internet sites can not legally be held liable for content posted by users, craigslist has no need to hide behind this well-established immunity. We are 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.
We have worked closely with several fair housing groups over the years on educating craigslist users about fair housing issues, and every page in our housing section has highlighted fair housing messages, linked to extensive educational materials and resources for learning more, and craigslist has been praised by fair housing advocates for our efforts in this regard. We will continue to work with such groups on fair housing issues, and remain open to genuine suggestions on how to improve, despite the needless distraction and counterproductive waste of resources this litigation will bring.
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.
Overreaching further, the suit demands that craigslist proactively volunteer personal information about posters who post a discriminatory preference (e.g. "church next door") to regulatory authorities for prosecution, without subpoena or warrant -- clearly a violation of privacy rights, this demand may actually run counter to federal law governing the handling of user information.
Ironically, if this lawsuit were to succeed the net effect would be to deal multiple blows to everyone's hard won civil rights - by significantly reducing access to equal opportunity housing, by undercutting our fundamental free speech rights, and by intruding on important privacy rights - thereby doing a great disservice to the very persons these lawyers purport to represent.
Putting aside the fact that craigslist legally can not be held liable in this suit, 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.