Here are a few listings that have appeared in the housing section on Craigslist's Chicago-area site: "Ladies Please Rent from Me," "Requirements: Clean Godly Christian Male" and "African Americans and Arabians tend to clash with me so that won't work out."
Offensive as these ads are, should Craigslist be liable for them? A civil rights group thinks so. The Chicago Lawyers' Committee recently sued Craigslist for running ads that allegedly violate the Fair Housing Act, a federal law that bans housing discrimination. "The laws against discrimination don't change because you add technology," says Stephen Libowsky, an attorney for the group. At issue is whether Craigslist is a publisher, subject to the Fair Housing Act, or a content distributor, which may not be liable for discriminatory ads, according to the Communications Decency Act. Housing-advocacy groups say the definition is crucial, because they think websites should abide by the same standards that newspapers are held to, especially since so much classified advertising is moving online.
What has this got to do with fair housing? Absolutely zip, except that punishing Craigslist could make it harder for everyone to find housing. Is this case of lawyers fishing for bounty? Perhaps. But the last line got me thinking: We know that the newspapers get a huge chunk of their revenues from classifieds, and they have identified Craiglist (and the internet in general) as a threat to their commercial viability. Could this lawsuit against Craigslist be motivated by newspaper interests trying stave off financial ruin?