Craigslist Isn’t Liable for Erotic Services Ads–Dart v. Craigslist

By Eric Goldman

Dart v. Craigslist, Inc., 09 C 1385 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 20, 2009)

Yesterday, Judge John F. Grady of the Northern District of Illinois federal court dismissed Cook County Sheriff Dart’s lawsuit against Craigslist for user-posted advertisements in Craigslist’s erotic services/adult services category on 47 USC 230 grounds. This is hardly surprising, as I wrote in March that “this lawsuit is almost certainly preempted by 47 USC 230.” However, it was nice to see such a clean and decisive opinion–and a little ironic, as our law enforcement officials, who are supposed to enforce the laws rather than bypass them, got schooled in the limits of their legal authority.

With respect to the 230 analysis, the court characterizes Sheriff Dart’s claims as alleging that Craigslist negligently published the user-supplied ads. The court says that the Seventh Circuit implicitly said that 230 preempted such claims in the 2008 CLC v. Craigslist case. To get around this, Sheriff Dart tried a Roommates.com styled attack, arguing that Craigslist induced the users’ advertisements by creating an erotic/adult services category and letting users do keyword searches. These arguments go nowhere (making this yet another case where Roommates.com is cited for the defense). An adult services category can legitimately contain postings for legal services, and the keyword search functionality was agnostic about the illegality of the search and therefore a “neutral tool” (whatever that meant from Roommates.com).

Two other interesting doctrinal notes from the opinion:

* In FN 6, the court reiterates that 230 preempts a civil action to enforce a federal criminal statute. See Doe v. Bates.

* the court rejects arguments that Craigslist “arranges” meetings for prostitution, “directs” people to prostitution or “provides” contact info for prostitutes because, in all three cases, the user-supplied ad (if anything) satisfies those verbs. Similarly, Craigslist’s role in “facilitating,” “assisting” or “aiding and abetting” these user activities is governed by 230. I believe this is consistent with my view that 230 should preempt any claim that one party “endorses” third party online content.

Given some ambiguous language floating in Seventh Circuit 230 jurisprudence from the CLC v. Craigslist case and the old Doe v. GTE case, it wouldn’t surprise me if Sheriff Dart tried an appeal. However, this opinion was solidly reasoned and completely consistent with that jurisprudence, so I wouldn’t expect a different result on appeal.

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