A Chicago nonprofit is asking a federal appeals court to reconsider whether Craigslist is immune from charges that the online classified service violates the Fair Housing Act by allowing users to post discriminatory housing advertisements.

The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued Craigslist in February 2006, after monitoring posts on the company’s Chicago site for sixth months and finding statements the group alleged were discriminatory in more than 200 ads for rental housing.

The ads flagged by the Lawyers’ Committee included statements such as, “Requirements: Clean Godly Christian Male,” “Non-Women of Color NEED NOT APPLY,” and “No children.”

The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal “to make, print, or publish … any notice or statement with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation or discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability or family status.”

While newspapers routinely screen classified ads submitted by their customers, lawyers for Craigslist argued that Web sites that allow users to post ads or commentary are not publishers, and that the Communications Decency Act protects them against claims based on content created by their users.

Craigslist users flag problematic posts for removal, and the company notifies users that stating discriminatory preferences in a housing post is illegal.

In November, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Craigslist is an “interactive computer service,” as defined by the Communications Decency Act. The Act allows Craigslist users to self-police the site, without the site being defined as a publisher wielding full control over editorial content, Judge Amy St. Eve said in a ruling for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The Lawyers’ Committee, in a brief filed Tuesday with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, said that if allowed to stand, St. Eve’s ruling would “dramatically expand” the Communications Decency Act, reintroducing “disincentives to private blocking and screening initiatives that Congress intended to remove.”

In a statement, Craigslist said the company continues to view the Lawyers’ Committee’s legal efforts as “misdirected,” and urged the group to drop its appeal.

“Craigslist does more to promote fair housing than any other company, online or offline, and the safeguards we have in place on our website fully address the (Lawyers’ Committee’s) stated concerns,” the company said. “Their lawsuit was dismissed by the federal court, and its administrative complaint has been dismissed by HUD. We have a long track record of working openly with fair housing groups, and will continue to do so. We urge the CLC to drop its pointless suit and join these groups in working with us to further the cause of fair housing.”

Passed in 1996, the Act grew out of legislation intended to restrict pornography on the Internet. It was amended in an attempt to protect companies who provide interactive online services such as discussion forums against claims based on user-generated content.

The Act says that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The Act also states that interactive computer services shall not be held liable for “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene.”

The Lawyers’ Committee argues that interactive Web sites enjoy immunity under the Act only if they refuse to publish offensive materials or remove offensive materials.

“Craigslist acknowledges it has made no effort to block or screen discriminatory advertisements posted on its website,” the Lawyers’ Group said — posts are removed only after they are flagged by users.

By ruling that all interactive Web sites are immune from claims related to publication, the district court’s interpretation “turns (the Act) on its head, by using publication as a trigger for immunity, and not the statutorily mandated ‘blocking and screening’ trigger for immunity,” the group argues.

If interactive Web sites are immune from claims relating to publication regardless of whether they attempt to screen out offensive material or not, they will have little incentive to take the time and expense to conduct such screening, the Lawyers’ Committee said.

“With the emergence of the Internet, everyday activities — such as reading the news, managing bank accounts, shopping for groceries, seeking employment or housing — are increasingly done online,” the Lawyers Committee argued. “Housing advertisements are now more commonly published on the Internet rather than in newspapers. Web sites like Craigslist receive literally millions of ‘hits’ and are viewed by thousands of people every day seeking to rent an apartment or buy a home. Sadly, housing discrimination has made its presence felt online. This case calls into question the extent to which (if at all) the Fair Housing Act will remain an effective enforcement tool against discriminatory online housing advertisements.”

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