See you in court, Craig

  • Medill News Service
  • February 08, 2006 @ 5:45 AM
Massive online bulletin board has been accused in a federal lawsuit of allegedly publishing discriminatory housing advertisements.

The Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. filed suit in Chicago this week saying Craigslist published more than 200 housing advertisements on its Chicago Web site since last July that excluded prospective buyers and tenants on the basis of race, gender, family status, marital status, national origin and religion.

According to the suit, one rental ad stated, "African Americans and Arabians tend to clash with me so that won't work out." Another read "no minorities" in all capitals.

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster denied the allegations.

"We're doing quite a bit currently to promote fair housing and Craigslist users are empowered through our flagging system to remove inappropriate ads themselves," Buckmaster said. "Additionally, we have always removed problematic ads when they are brought to our attention."

Founded in 1995, the San Francisco-based company operates 190 Web sites serving markets in all 50 states and 35 countries, according to its Web site. It runs more than 6 million classified ads each month.

While Craigslist is a for-profit company, it says its .ORG domain is "a symbol of our service mission and non-corporate culture." Most of its ads are free, and the company says it makes money by charging for help wanted ads in some markets.

The housing section of the Craigslist Chicago Web site tells visitors that "stating a discriminatory preference in a housing post is illegal." The site also has a page containing resources to report housing discrimination.

But Professor Bill Caruso, executive director of the John Marshall Law School fair housing legal clinic, thinks Craigslist could have a problem if it is held responsible for the contents of its site, as newspapers are held responsible for the contents of their ads.

"If 200 people ran [discriminatory housing] ads in the Chicago Tribune, then the Chicago Tribune would be responsible," he said.

Laurie Wardell, the director of fair housing for the group that filed the suit, said discriminatory ads have proliferated on the Internet. "It's because the Internet is more of a Wild West environment, and print has more regulations," she said.

The lawsuit contends it takes too long for Craiglist to remove discriminatory ads. According to the Craigslist Web site, an advertisement must be "flagged" by users as problematic four times before it is removed automatically.

By allowing blatantly discriminatory ads to remain online, Wardell said, "They mislead the general public into thinking that it's legal to discriminate based on country of origin, race, and other labels, when it is in fact illegal."

John Bartlett, executive director for the Metropolitan Tenants Organization in Chicago, said Craigslist might want to adopt more safeguards.

"It seems like if [an ad] gets one flag it should be looked at," he said.

The suit calls for Craigslist to screen ads for discriminatory language, post its non-discrimination policy online, insert the phrase "Equal Housing Opportunity" in all ads and report discriminatory ads to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which enforces the Fair Housing Act.

Wardell said the committee is monitoring other housing Web sites for discrimination.