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Legal Blogosphere Reacts as Ninth Circuit Puts the Brakes on CDA Immunity for Online Services

Yesterday’s Ninth Circuit decision in Fair Housing Council v., LLC, case no. 04-56916 (May 15, 2007) has the digital legal world abuzz . . . as one should expect of the latest decision on the scope of immunity afforded to online services by the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”), 47 U.S.C. § 230(c).

In this case, two municipal fair housing councils sued, an online clearinghouse for those seeking to obtain roommates or move in as one. They alleged that the website published discriminatory roommate preferences in violation of the Fair Housing Act and various state laws. The district court found Roommates immune under the CDA and granted summary judgment on the FHA claim.

Judge Kozinski’s majority opinion succinctly summarized the bounds of immunity under the CDA:

In other words, if Roommate passively publishes information provided by others, the CDA protects it from liability that would otherwise attach under state or federal law as a result of such publication. But if it is responsible, in whole or in part, for creating or developing the information, it becomes a content provider and is not entitled to CDA immunity. (Footnote omitted.)

The majority opinion then finds that Roommates lacks immunity under the CDA for publishing and e-mailing member profiles containing members’ gender, sexuality, and children information and preferences, which it collects from its members via an interactive, drop-down menu registration process. But it finds that Roommates is immune from liability for publishing the free-form comments submitted by its members. Concurring and dissenting, Judge Reinhardt would also find immunity lacking for the latter publication.

Some bloggers suggest a possible relationship to anti-blogging sentiment recently expressed by Judge Kozinski. Howard Bashman at How Appealing says this “decision screwing-up the protection from liability for online postings” might have been foreshadowed by “Judge Kozinski’s recent expression of anti-blogger sentiment,” to which he links. David Lat at Above the Law headlines his post about the case: “Does Judge Kozinski Hate Blogs?” University of San Diego School of Law Professor Shaun Martin, blogging at California Appellate Report, spies a “tangential slam on bloggers” in footnote 1 of the opinion, but doesn’t seriously tie the decision to anti-blogging bias.

In a subsequent post, Bashman links to an article about the case that will appear in Wednesday’s New York Times.

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh at The Volokh Conspiracy has two posts about the case. The first is a detailed analysis of the decision. His second is a commentary on the (un)constitutionality of limiting free speech and free intimate association rights to advertise for and select a roommate of one’s choice.

Professor Eric Goldman of the Santa Clara University School of Law, blogging at Technology and Marketing Law Blog headlines his take “Ninth Circuit Screws Up 47 USC 230.” He sees a “180” being pulled by the court:

Just a couple months ago, in Perfect 10 v. CCBill, the Ninth Circuit issued an incredibly expansive 230 ruling. Today, in a highly fractured opinion, they go in the completely opposite direction, creating a significant exception to 230’s coverage that’s bound to spur plenty of new unmeritorious and ill-advised lawsuits from plaintiffs. Why the 180? Such is life in the Ninth Circuit.

The Decision of the Day blog provides analysis supporting its opinion that the “decision suggests that § 230 may be a lot narrower than some websites would like.

Bashman’s and Goldman’s posts suggest ramifications for pending suits against and the insanely popular Craig’s List.

Thanks to the bloggers mentioned above for providing many of the links.

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