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Craigslist Wins Section 230 Case


A den of racism?
Or a deep pocket?

There is much rejoicing on the internet today.

Some of the housing ads on Craigslist proclaim “NO MINORITIES” and “No children” — a violation (in some circumstances) of the Fair Housing Act.

So the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights sued Craigslist for allowing the ads to be posted.

One of the ads to which the CLCFCR objected contains the phrase “Catholic Church and beautiful Buddhist Temple within one block”. Some of the others were actually blatantly (and disgustingly) discriminatory.

Judge Easterbrook wrote in his concise, precise, and wise opinion that Section 230 means what it says, no matter what any crybaby might want it to say.

What §230(c)(1) says is that an online information system must not “be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by” someone else. Yet only in a capacity as publisher could craigslist be liable under §3604(c). It is not the author of the ads and could not be treated as the “speaker” of the posters’ words, given §230(a)(1). The Lawyers’ Committee responds that “nothing in §230’s text or history suggests that Congress meant to immunize an ISP from liability under the Fair Housing Act. In fact, Congress did not even remotely contemplate discriminatory housing advertisements when it passed §230.” That’s true enough, but the reason a legislature writes a general statute is to avoid any need to traipse through the United States Code and consider all potential sources of liability, one at a time. The question is not whether Congress gave any thought to the Fair Housing Act, but whether it excluded §3604(c) from the reach of §230(c)(1).

By mocking this case, I do not mean to imply that I have any issue with bringing lawsuits under the Fair Housing Act. Au contraire. Bigoted landlords who fall under (and run afoul of) the Act should be punished. The Act provides that newspapers can be punished for accepting bigoted ads. I am even okay with that.

By mocking the plaintiffs, I remain consistent with my policy of mocking those who practice law, yet fail to understand what Section 230 does — it recognizes that the internet could not function if every online service provider were forced to accept publisher liability for content posted by its users. That would be like making cities responsible for every word uttered on the public sidewalks.

Expecting every service provider to act as a private police/censorship force would certainly satisfy whiny anti-speech liberals, but it would mean that every single website and web forum would need to become PC police.

Ok, lets cut the plaintiffs some slack. From their statement on the case:

“We are pleased that the Seventh Circuit rejected the blanket immunity position of craigslist, the amici and the other circuits. While we are of course disappointed with the overall outcome of the case, we are gratified that the Court emphasized in the final paragraph of its decision that landlords and other housing providers who post discriminatory advertisements remain fully liable under the federal fair housing laws. (emphasis added)

I agree wholeheartedly with the emphasized text. But, even trying to impose that liability on Craigslist was sleazy and stupid. When I get cases like this (on the defense side, of course) I call up the other lawyer and say “have you considered how bad it would be for everyone if you won?

This is a good day for internet freedom.

Everybody dance now! *does the robot*

See Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights v. Craigslist, __ F.3d __(7th Cir. 2008).

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