Last Friday the Seventh Circuit applied Section 230 of the Communications Decency Acto to uphold a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Craigslist on claims that it violated Section 804(a) the Fair Housing Act. The Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights argued that Craigslist caused discriminatory ads that violated the Act by maintaining an electronic bulletin board on which they appear. Writing for the panel Chief Justice Easterbrook rejected the claim that there is a meaningful causal relationship between Craigslist and any discriminatory ads: “Doubtless craigslist plays a causal role in the sense that no one could post a discriminatory ad if craigslist did not offer a forum. That is not, however, a useful definition of cause. One might as well say that people who save money “cause” bank robbery, because if there were no banks there could be no bank robberies. An interactive computer service “causes” postings only in the sense of providing a place where people can post.”
The court stated that Section 230(c)(2) cannot be understood to create general immunity from civil liability for websites and other hosts of online content. Craigslist’s role as a passive intermediary is central to its reasoning. The court states that “§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 court reaches its decision without referring to the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Fair Housing Councils v Roommates.com. The Ninth Circuit held that Roommates.com met Section 230’s definition of information content provider by limiting its users’ responses to choices available in drop-down menus and by collating and selecting user-provided information in emailed newsletters. Craigslist, on the other hand, provided a forum for user-created ads without shaping their content.