Designer Skin LLC v. S & L Vitamins, Inc., et al.
Chicago Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights Under Law Inc. v. Craigslist, Inc.
No. 07-1101 (7th Cir., March 14, 2008)
Communications Decency Act Bars Craigslist From Being Held Liable For Publication Of Third Party Ads
Affirming the District Court below, the Seventh Circuit holds that Craigslist cannot be held liable for violating the Fair Housing Act as a result of its online publication of discriminatory housing ads authored by third parties. To hold Craigslist liable for such conduct would require it to be treated as a ‘publisher’ of these advertisements, which is prohibited by Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act. As a result, the Seventh Circuit affirms the District Court’s grant of summary judgment, dismissing plaintiff’s Fair Housing Act claims against Craigslist.
Craigslist Publishes Real Estate Ads, Authored By Third Parties, That Violate The Fair Housing Act
Craigslist, among other things, provides an online forum at which those wishing to rent real estate, can post advertisements seeking tenants. Among the many real estate listings posted by third party users of Craigslist’s service, were numerous advertisements that violated the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. Section 3604(a). This Act prohibits advertisements that state a preference, for or against, renters of any protected class.
The FHA makes it illegal to “publish” such advertisements. Claiming that Craigslist violated the FHA by making such advertisements available online, plaintiff – the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Inc. - commenced this suit.
Communications Decency Act Bars Craigslist From Being Treated As A Publisher Of Third Party Ads At Issue
Craigslist moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff’s claims were barred by application of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”). The District Court agreed, and dismissed plaintiff’s suit. This holding was affirmed by the Seventh Circuit on appeal.
To hold Craigslist liable for the advertisements at issue would require that it be treated as the publisher of this content, which was prohibited by the CDA. Said the Seventh Circuit:
7th Circuit’s Narrow Reading Of Communications Decency Act
In reaching this result, Chief Judge Easterbrook reaffirmed the Seventh Circuit’s narrow reading of section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, first announced in Doe v. GTE, 347 F.3d 655 (3rd Cir. 2003). As explained by Judge Easterbrook, Section 230(c)(1) should not be read as a broad grant of immunity to information service providers. Rather, it is a ‘definitional clause’ which does what it says – prohibits information service providers from being treated as publishers or speakers of information provided by someone else. Said the Seventh Circuit: “section 230(c) as a whole cannot be understood as a general prohibition of civil liability for web-site operators and other online content hosts.”
To hold otherwise, noted Judge Easterbrook, would defeat the purpose of Section 230(c), which was to encourage information service providers to screen the content found on their sites. Reading 230(c)(1) as a broad grant of immunity would defeat that purpose – and encourage just the opposite – as it would provide immunity both for taking and not taking action to screen third party information posted on a site. Because screening costs money, the likely result, posited the Court, would be that information service providers would elect not to screen, thereby defeating the purpose of the CDA.