47 U.S.C.S. § 230(c) as a whole cannot be understood as a general prohibition of civil liability for web-site operators and other online content hosts. To appreciate the limited role of § 230(c)(1), it should be remembered that information content providers may be liable for contributory infringement if their system is designed to help people steal music or other material in copyright. This holding is incompatible with treating § 230(c)(1) as a grant of comprehensive immunity from civil liability for content provided by a third party.
Craigslist, an online tool which provided an electronic meeting place for those who want to buy, sell, or rent housing (and many other goods and services), was alleged to have been violating the Fair Housing Act which forbid discrimination on account of race, religion, sex, or family status when selling or renting housing. According to The Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (“Plaintiff”), some notices posted on Craigslist were discriminatory. As such, the plaintiff instituted a complaint against Craigslist. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Craigslist holding that 47 U.S.C.S. § 230(c)(1) (a part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996) protected Craigslist from liability for the content of the housing ads. The plaintiff thereafter sought a review of the district court’s judgment.
Did the district court err in its decision to grant summary judgment in favor of Craigslist?
The Court held that § 230(c)(1) protected online information systems from being treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by someone else. In the case at bar, Craigslist did not cause the discriminatory notices to be posted and also did nothing else that would take it out of the protections provided by § 230(c)(1). The Court concluded that, while The Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law could try to identify landlords and owners to investigate from the ads, given § 230(c)(1), the committee could not sue the messenger just because the message revealed a third party's plan to engage in unlawful discrimination.