Judge Tosses Craigslist Prostitution Lawsuit

CHICAGO—A federal judge has tossed a lawsuit by the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, that accused the national online ad behemoth of essentially providing prostitution services.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart had filed the suit earlier this year, with the intent to compel Craigslist to discontinue the service that allows people to submit erotic ads. The sheriff said his officers had made innumerable arrests for prostitution and other crimes as a result of monitoring Craigslist.

However, U.S. District Judge John F. Grady, in a 20-page ruling delivered Oct. 20, ruled that as a conduit Craigslist cannot be held responsible for the actions of others. “Sheriff Dart may continue to use Craigslist’s website to identify and pursue individuals who post allegedly unlawful content,” Grady said. “But he cannot sue Craigslist for their conduct.”

According to Bloomberg.com, “Craigslist, based in San Francisco, records more than 20 billion page views each month, making its www.craigslist.org the seventh-most visited English-language Internet portal in the world, according to its Web site.”

Indeed, in arguing that Craigslist is a public nuisance, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department contended that between January and November 2008, the department had devoted 3,120 man hours and approximately $105,081 to make 105 arrests through Craigslist, and that it had arrested 200 people through Craigslist since January 2007, for a variety of charges, including a few for pimping a minor.

Craigslist lawyers asserted, however, that regardless of the outcome of investigations by law enforcement with respect to postings by third parties on its websites, it is immune from immune from liability under Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which states:

(1)   “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information by another information content provider,” and

(2)   “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or (B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).”

Grady ultimately determined that case law clearly came down on the side of Craigslist, and he cited for support a 2008 U.S. Appeals Court ruling that exonerated the company from liability for posting ads for the sale or rental of houses and apartments that were deemed discriminatory.

He also rejected the claim by Dart that Craigslist played an active role in the acts of alleged prostitution carried out through its web pages by knowingly arranging meetings and directing people to places of prostitution.

“But these allegations strain the ordinary meaning of the terms “arrange” and “direct” unless Craiglist itself created the offending ads,” Grady said. “There is no such allegation, and given 230(c)(1), we cannot treat Craigslist as if it did create those ads.”

The same, he said, goes for the allegations that Craigslist provided the names and addresses of prostitutes and brothels. Indeed, his choice of words echoed those of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who, in supporting the lawsuit brought against Craigslist, had referred to it as an “internet brothel.”

Bloomberg reports that a spokesperson for the County Cook Sheriff said that the office is reviewing its options in the wake of Grady’s dismissal of the lawsuit, and commented, “We realize that Craigslist has a green light to allow criminal activity to take place on its Web site.”

Susan Best, a Craiglist spokeswoman, told Bloomberg in an e-mail: “We welcome the outcome of Judge Grady’s ruling.”

Craigslist, it should be noted, has not been completely insensitive to the increasing number of complaints by law enforcement entities through the country regarding its erotic services, and last May agreed to remove the erotic services category from its Internet site, replacing it with more closely monitored adult listings.

A link to the decision is available here.