Submit to Digest

Dart v. Craigslist, Inc.: Charges against Craigslist for their “Adult Services” section dismissed by Illinois District Court

Dart v. Craigslist, Inc., No. 09 C 1385 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 20, 2009) Opinion

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois held, on Craigslist’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, that Craigslist is not liable for the content posted by its viewers. The court cited Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, concluding that Craigslist, as an Internet classified ads service provider, is immune to civil liability for third party content. The court found Craigslist analogous to an ISP or phone service provider and thus not liable for users’ content and conduct, as opposed to, as plaintiff contended, a newspaper or magazine which may be held liable for its ads. and Eric Goldman's Technology & Marketing Law Blog summarize the case.

Plaintiff Tomas Dart, the Sheriff of Cook County Illinois, alleges that Craigslist is facilitating prostitution through their erotic (now “adult”) services section, and thus constitutes a public nuisance. Plaintiff sought money damages and to enjoin Craigslist from hosting its adult services section (Compl. P 1; id. at P 27.) Dart claims that Craigslist violated Illinois statute by arranging “meetings of persons for purposes of prostitution and directs them to a place for the purpose of prostitution.” As evidence, Dart cites “The Polaris Project,” an advocacy group against human trafficking, stating that “Craigslist is the single largest source for prostitution, including child exploitation, in the country.”

Craigslist argued that U.S.C. Section 230(c) absolves them of any liability. According to Section 230(c), “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.” Section 230(e) of the further states that, “No cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section.” Craigslist also points out that before posting ads on its website, users must first agree to its Terms of Use. Furthermore, prior to entering the adult services section, users must agree to flag any content that violates Craigslist’s Terms of Use.

In addressing Dart’s allegations, the court reasoned that even if Craigslist were found to violate the Illinois statute, Section 230(e) of the act would control. Furthermore, the court found Dart’s interpretation of “arrange” and “direct” to “strain the ordinary meaning of the terms.” The court reasoned that since it was the users who choose to post such content, even against Craigslist’s express Terms of Use, Craigslist in no way induced anyone to create, post or search for illegal content.

The court’s holding is wise and conservative; to rule otherwise would blatantly disregard the plain meaning of the Communications Decency Act, and invite a slew of litigation. The court does note, however, that the act does not protect online content hosts from all civil liability, warning that Craigslist could be held liable for its own content or if its system were truly designed to encourage or cause the unlawful behavior. Given Craigslist’s existing precautions, it seems this message is directed at the public rather that to Craigslist itself.