A federal judge has summarily dismissed a lawsuit Chicago's sheriff brought against Craigslist, ruling that the website can't be sued for prostitution ads posted by its users.
The decision is a blow to Thomas Dart, the sheriff of Illinois's Cook County, who argued the erotic services section of Craigslist violated prostitution laws because it "arranges" meetings and "directs" people to places where sex is sold. Dart sought a court order requiring the site to close the section and to pay the costs his department incurred in cracking down on hookers and Johns who used the it.
The ruling by US District Judge John F. Grady is good news not only for Craigslist but for any US-based website that accepts comments, photos, or other types of user-submitted content. The 22-page decision made it clear that a provision in the CDA, or Communications Decency Act, fully immunizes the site for user-supplied ads even when they "provide" contact details for prostitutes and brothels.
"Craigslist does not 'provide' that information, its users do," Grady wrote. "'Facilitating' and 'assisting' encompass a broader range of conduct, so broad in fact that they include the services provided by intermediaries like phone companies, ISPs, and computer manufacturers. Intermediaries are not culpable for 'aiding and abetting' their customers who misuse their services to commit unlawful acts."
Grady flatly rejected Dart's claim that the the section was nothing more than a prostitution service or that it "induced" people to engage in the illegal trade. A woman offering erotic dancing services to male clients in the w4m, or women for men, section is an adult service that isn't prostitution, Grady wrote.
He went on to say that section 230(c)(1) of the CDA, which prevents websites from being held liable for the postings of their users, "would serve little if any purpose if companies like Craigslist were found liable under state law for 'causing' or 'inducing' users to post unlawful content in this fashion."
Over the past year, the Craigslist section has undergone several changes. Those posting ads must first register with the site using a computerized telephone verification routine and pay for each listing using a valid credit card. The site said the policy resulted in a 95-percent drop in erotic services listings. More recently, Craigslist bosses dropped the erotic services moniker and replaced it simply with adult services.
The ruling is the latest to interpret the CDA as offering broad protection to US-based websites for the illegal acts of their users. In March 2008, an appeals court reached much the same conclusion after a housing rights group sued Craigslist for apartment ads that discriminated against applicants based on race. And in July, a California state appeals court arrived at a similar result in a case involving underage MySpace users who were sexually assaulted.
Despite the steady stream of decisions, some government officials still haven't taken notice. Among them is South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, who has claimed the CDA immunity provision doesn't apply to Craigslist. As Santa Clara law professor Eric Goldman points out there's something just a tad ironic when law enforcement officials who are sworn to uphold the law are schooled in the limits of their legal authority. ®