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Housing-Bias Suit Against Craigslist May Have Wide Impact

Chicago Tribune

Federal housing regulators are fielding more complaints about discriminatory ads these days -- including one against Craigslist -- and they say they have made the issue a priority.

A Chicago fair-housing group sued Craigslist last month, saying the popular website ran about 100 discriminatory housing ads over a six-month period.

Many of the ads cited in the suit were prohibitions against renters with children -- a violation of the Fair Housing Act -- and preferences for singles. Others noted that a rental was near a church, which could be construed as a violation of the FHA.

Several pointedly brought up race or religion. “No Minorities,” read one. “African Americans and Arabians tend to clash with me so that won’t work out,” read another.

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The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law contend that the Fair Housing Act applies to the Internet just as it does to print media. And that would mean all websites -- just like newspapers -- are liable for discriminatory housing ads.

But there is another landmark federal statute -- Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act -- that has stacked the odds against HUD and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, Internet law experts say.

The Communications Decency Act provides broad protection for Internet forums that post ads and opinions submitted by their users.

Websites often wield the decency law to fight defamation claims, but it has also been used at least once to successfully fight a housing discrimination suit.

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A federal judge in California cited the Communications Decency Act in 2004 when he dismissed a suit by two fair-housing groups against Roommates.com, a roommate search service. The fair-housing councils of San Diego and the San Fernando Valley sued Roommates.com in December 2003. The case, which is on appeal, is similar to the one against Craigslist.

Section 230 of the act “is a very powerful shield,” said attorney Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a technology and civil liberties group. “I think Craigslist has the law on its side.”

Craigslist’s chief executive, Jim Buckmaster, has said the site is “very concerned about discrimination in housing ads.”

Opsahl said the suits against Craigslist and Roommates.com highlighted what was ultimately a policy dispute -- Internet freedom versus civil rights -- that should be ultimately decided by Congress.

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Robert Schwemm, an expert in fair-housing law at the University of Kentucky, said there was a “real good chance Congress will revisit” the issue because housing classifieds are increasingly migrating to the Internet.

Schwemm, a law professor, said that when he asked his students whether they had heard of Craigslist, 100% raised their hands in the affirmative.

“You can’t take a fair-housing law that governs all advertising and say, ‘We have this new technology that a younger generation uses -- it’s not covered,’ ” Schwemm said. “You have a hole here that is just going to get bigger.”


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