A Chicago fair housing group has sued groundbreaking Web site Craigslist for allegedly publishing discriminatory advertisements, a case that could test the legal liabilities of online ad venues.
The suit is part of an emerging attempt by housing watchdogs nationally to hold online classified sites to the same strict standards as the publishers of print classifieds, such as newspapers.
The suit is potentially significant because it suggests that the rules for an Internet site should be the same as for a traditional publisher, in which every ad should be vetted to conform with the law. But that notion contradicts the way the Internet has blossomed, where informal communities tend to police themselves and free expression is valued.
The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued San Francisco-based Craigslist, claiming that during a six-month period beginning in July, the site ran more than 100 ads in Chicago that violated the federal Fair Housing Act.
The committee, a public interest consortium of the city’s leading law firms, said in a federal suit that those ads discriminated on race, religion, sex, family status or national origin.
Among the ads cited in the suit: “Non-women of Color NEED NOT APPLY”; “African Americans and Arabians tend to clash with me so that won’t work out”; and “Requirements: Clean Godly Christian Male.”
Craigslist acknowledges that completely screening its vast classified listings—which range from babysitters seeking work to people selling tickets to White Sox games—would be “physically impossible,” Jim Buckmaster, Craigslist’s chief executive officer, said in an e-mail interview Tuesday.
The site doesn’t pre-screen or approve ads, he said, and 8 million new classified ads are submitted each month.