Tuesday, a district court judge ruled that craigslist cannot be held liable for the content of housing ads users post on the site. The result is an important win for online forums like craigslist, who would be unable to provide online housing ads without this protection. The reasoning, however, is troubling, and might be used to undercut the strong legal protections upon which our vibrant online communities rely.
The case stemmed from allegedly discriminatory housing ads that users posted on the Chicago craigslist site. The Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law wanted to hold craigslist responsible for ads written by its users, but craigslist maintained that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act specifically protects hosts of interactive computer services from liability in order to encourage free discourse and robust debate. EFF supported craigslist with an amicus brief, arguing for strong protections in order to encourage open forums and free speech.
Section 230 plays a key role in fostering free speech on the Internet. Without the broad protections stemming from Section 230, few would risk creating a website that permitted unfettered input from the public. This does not mean that people can't pursue legal action if they think a craigslist post is discriminatory -- they can. But instead of suing the forum where the statement was made, they should sue the misguided landlord who made the discriminatory statement in the first place.
The court held that Section 230 protected craigslist, but nevertheless questioned the reasoning followed by numerous courts which have broadly interpreted the statute. Instead, this court envisioned a narrower protection, sufficient to protect against the claims at issue, but opening the door for later courts to limit Section 230's important and necessary protections. In doing so, the court misreads the key cases, and creates a needless limitation that is contrary to the plain reading of Section 230, the intent of Congress and the needs to have open forums on the Internet.
The vast majority of other cases have reached the right conclusion, including all the appeals court to decide the issue, so the impact of this court's analysis is limited. Moreover, it would not be surprising if the Lawyer's Committee appealed, giving the appeals court the opportunity to affirm the judgement and correct the reasoning. We'll be sure to be there as a friend of the court.