The Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed suit in federal court Monday, charging that the posts on the popular Internet site violate federal fair-housing rules, which forbid excluding possible tenants on the basis of race, gender, family status, religion or other protected categories.
Attorney Stephen Libowsky, who's handling the case for the civil rights group, said that Craigslist provided a good service but should be held to the same standards that newspapers and other publications have met over the past few decades.
"We've had decades of gains since civil rights legislation was passed," Libowsky said. "We're concerned that hard-fought gains that we've made would be lost, just because we now read on a computer screen what we used to read in a newspaper."
The case taps into what has been a controversial legal question since the early days of the Internet but that has.
Unlike newspapers or magazines, Internet sites are often made up of content submitted wholly by visitors or readers, without any intervention by an editor. Courts and Congress have typically said that means the sites are shielded from traditional libel or copyright infringement liability, if they remove offending posts when notified.
In the broadest legal statement on the issue, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act says in part 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 Chicago public interest group said that it had found more than 200 instances of discriminatory language on Craigslist's Chicago site, with language such as "no minorities" or "Ladies please rent from me."
Libowsky said the group is not looking for a specific result but wanted either a human or automated editor to be able to filter these postings out.
Craigslist does notify users on every housing listing page that discriminatory posts are illegal under federal law, and it asks readers to contact the site if they see offending posts.
Craigslist Chief Executive Officer Jim Buckmaster said in an e-mail that the company was "committed to fair housing for everyone," and did more than was legally required to educate its users about fair housing law, and to give readers tools to identify and remove discriminatory ads.
"We'll try to make lemonade out of this lemon, by transforming the time and money that will now be diverted from serving our users into setting a positive legal precedent for society at large," Buckmaster said.