Over the last few weeks, numerous state Attorneys General (and the Cook County Sheriff) have been tossing around threats against Craigslist, the online classified ad forum. The AGs were claiming that Craigslist is responsible for "erotic services" ads placed by Craigslist users. The AGs were demanding that Craigslist shut down parts of its service and/or censor postings made by its users. At least one AG - in South Carolina - said that he will bring criminal charges against Craigslist if it fails to eliminate any content to which that AG objects.
These threatened charges both violate the U.S. Constitution and directly conflict with federal law. Federal law is crystal clear that Craigslist has no liability under state law for content posted by users. If a prostitute advertises illegal services on Craigslist and then commits a crime, the prostitute may be guilty, but Craigslist is not. In 1996, Congress passed a law - known as "Section 230" - for the very reason that it wanted to leave sites like Craigslist free to adopt remedial measures against unsavory content - as Craigslist has done - without fear of becoming liable as the publisher of the content posted by users.
Even though the site is clearly protected from liability by Section 230, a couple of days ago Craigslist decided to voluntarily restructure its "adult" ad categories. For the specific category of "adult" services, Craigslist will screen the ad copy and remove ads that plainly suggest an illegal transaction like prostitution. This new screening will certainly reduce the most blatant "erotic" ads on the site, and Craigslist should be applauded for deciding to take these steps.
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