Friday, March 21, 2008

You Can't Sue a Soapbox

soap.jpgA Federal appeals court ruled on March 14, 2008 that "the soapbox isn't liable for what the speaker has said."

That gem stems from a lawsuit filed in February 2006 by a group of Chicago-area attorneys, accusing Craigslist of violating federal housing laws by publishing housing ads that attempted to exclude potential buyers/tenants because of their race, gender, or religion. The District Court judge ruled that Craiglist serves as an intermediary party and not a publisher and is therefore not liable for what individual posters said in their ads.

It's like the difference between the glossy Homes for Sale magazines and your local grocery store's bulletin board. Each probably has classified ads touting area homes sale. But the glossy publication employs a staff who are responsible (among many other things) for making sure that federal Fair Housing rules aren't violated in the ad text. But the grocery store is just providing a bulletin. Individual homeowners can post any discriminatory ad up there they want to (one prays they don't!) and no one can hold the grocer liable.

Why It Matters - This actually could have been a watershed moment in American legal history. If Craigslist had been held liable for the content of their users' ads, it could have conceivably shut down the site and changed the world of online social networking. Craig and those other sites like Flickr, MySpace and Facebook presumably employ some staff, but the amount of staff needed to screen every ad, post, comment and photo would be immense. One imagines a lot more jobs suddenly being outsourced to India. <snerk>

In my opinion, it seemed unlikely that Craigslist would be held liable for the content of it's posts. Even the casual online visitor (I hope) knows that bulletin board, auction & social networking websites don't screen your posts. But a whole bunch of attorneys felt the case had merit, so what do I know? Apparently, they felt that bulletin boards in cyberspace were just different enough from pen-and-ink bulletin boards to warrant a legal once-over.

Housing discrimination is terrible and folks shouldn't do it, but holding Craig responsible for the stoopid things regular folks sometimes say seems to take things a bit far.