Washington—Since its enactment nearly 40 years ago, the federal Fair Housing Act has made it unlawful for newspapers to publish housing ads with discriminatory phrases like “whites only.”
But now some in the largely unregulated Internet industry say the law doesn’t apply to their online ads, and civil rights groups are crying foul.
Instead, several of the nation’s best-known Internet sites are arguing that a section of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives them broad protection from lawsuits when they publish content, including housing ads, created by others.
That has resulted in ads like this one found on craigslist.org last summer: “African-Americans and Arabians tend to clash with me so that won’t work out.” And this one posted on Katrinahousing.org, a Web site to help those in need following last year’s devastating hurricane: “I would love to house a single mom with one child, not racist but white only.”
Those ads would be illegal if published in a newspaper, legal experts say, raising the question of why it is permissible to run them in one medium and not another.
Civil rights advocates say online housing ads are turning the clock, and American values, back to the years of segregation and sanctioned prejudice.
“Congress did not intend the Communications Decency Act to give people license to promote racism,” said James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. “If we are going to stem racism, sexism and all the other ‘isms’ out there, we have to have the same rules for the Internet as we do for print media.”
Discriminatory ads in any medium stigmatize and promote segregation, said Laurie Wardell, a lawyer with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil liberties group that focuses on housing issues.
Even worse, she said, they mislead people into thinking it is acceptable to openly discriminate.
The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago earlier this year against craigslist, alleging that the Web site publishes discriminatory housing ads in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
The suit cites more than 150 ads from the Chicago area posted from July 2005 to February 2006 that it says discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin.
Lawyers for craigslist argue that the Communications Decency Act explicitly grants a broad immunity from liability for the display of those ads.
“Without any refuge in case law, plaintiff invites this court to adopt a radically different and unprecedented construction [of the law] that defies both the statute’s plain language and its key policy objectives,” wrote Eric D. Brandfonbrener, a Chicago-based lawyer representing craigslist.
Courts have consistently supported protecting the Internet industry from lawsuits since the law’s passage 10 years ago. But those cases looked at defamation and compliance with other legal statutes, not discrimination in housing ads.
If craigslist were required to screen housing ads for discriminatory content in the same way that newspapers do, it would be equivalent to “requiring cars or trains to be equipped with the same safety equipment required on horse-drawn carriages,” said Jim Buckmaster, president and chief executive of craigslist, in response to written questions.