Most newspaper publishers won’t accept advertisements for rental or for-sale housing that they’ve deemed likely to be discriminating toward certain classes of people. Yet Web sites that publish such advertisements irresponsibly have failed to adopt similarly policies and practices.

These Web sites should be held to the same legal requirements as their print competitors. The Fair Housing Act and the Web sites’ professional and moral obligations to their readers dictate no less than full compliance.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that enforces the Fair Housing Act, is investigating real estate advertising on Web sites and Web sites’ policies and practices regarding fair housing compliance. HUD should use every means within its authority to enforce the law, which protects certain classes of people from discrimination when they buy or rent housing.

Federal laws typically hold authors and advertisers, not publishers responsible for the legality of published content, yet the Fair Housing Act is a curious exception in that it expressly holds publishers responsible for real estate advertising that discriminates against protected classes. The oddity of the law isn’t a loophole for Web sites to avoid compliance with the same standards that apply to newspapers.

For those who haven’t read it, Sec. 804(c) of the Fair Housing Act unambiguously states that it is illegal “to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.”

Newspapers have brought a variety of legal challenges to this section of the law; however, there are now cases on the books in which they’ve been held legally responsible for publishing advertisements that violated the federal fair housing law. The law doesn’t define or narrow the term “publish” to refer only to materials that are in print, and indeed the seeming redundancy of “print, or publish” implies that “publish” is a different or broader term than “print.” There is no exception carved out for Web sites that “publish” real estate advertising electronically, rather than in print.

Some Web site companies say they don’t have enough staff to screen real estate ads for fair housing compliance, but that defense is a non-starter since cost is never a valid excuse for non-compliance. If such an argument had any legitimacy, no doubt every financial institution in the country would fire its compliance staff on the spot and use the “we-can’t-afford-it” argument to defend all sorts of violations of federal banking regulations.

Newspapers bear the cost of compliance with the Fair Housing Act regardless of their size, resources or profitability, and Web sites should be held to the same requirements. Consider also that Web sites are direct competitors of newspapers. That means avoidance of compliance costs amounts to an unfair competitive advantage for the Web sites at the expense of the newspapers.

Setting aside the technicalities of the law, publishers also have professional and moral obligations to their readers and the public. Failure to prohibit publication of discriminatory housing advertisements is a bad business practice and bad faith.

The truly bizarre expectation that Web site readers, rather than Web site operators, should police Web sites and request removal of discriminatory ads after they’ve been published is just another excuse for the operator’s legal and moral failure to screen the advertisements before they’re published. The damage begins as soon as the advertisement appears and its removal doesn’t reverse the harm that has already happened.

Moreover, it would be ridiculous to suggest victims could sue other readers for their failure to have discriminatory advertisements removed, so what recourse would then exist in the absence of the Web site operator’s own responsibility?

Neither ignorance of the Fair Housing Act nor confusion about its complexities and idiosyncrasies is an acceptable excuse for noncompliance. Plenty of resources about the law and its requirements are available on the Internet, where Web site operators certainly can find them with ease. HUD’s own Web site is one such resource, as is The Housing Site, a new offering that contains a wealth of useful information. Those are but two of many examples.

Some ill-informed people might think the federal Fair Housing Act is an arcane law that has outlived its usefulness in modern society; however, that is clearly not the case. HUD and state and local agencies involved in HUD’s Fair Housing Assistance Program received more than 9,100 complaints of housing discrimination last year and settled or appeased more than 3,100 of those cases.

Discrimination that deprives protected classes of people housing opportunities that would otherwise be available to them is sadly alive and well. Web sites, like newspapers, should do their part to comply with the law and help to eliminate such discrimination.

Marcie Geffner is a real estate reporter in Los Angeles.


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