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updated 3/17/2008 10:54:35 AM ET 2008-03-17T14:54:35

Craigslist should not be held liable for discriminatory housing ads posted on the popular Web site, a federal appeals court ruled.

The decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is a win for San Francisco-based Craigslist, an online network of classified ads and forums on which more than 30 million notices are posted every month, according to the ruling.

It is also a triumph for Internet sites that depend on user-generated content and for foes of legal boundaries for the Web, experts said.

The ruling means "the soapbox is not liable for what the speaker has said," said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that advocates for free speech online.

The lawsuit, filed by a consortium of Chicago attorneys in February 2006, accused Craigslist of violating federal housing laws by publishing more than 100 ads that excluded potential buyers or tenants on the basis of race, gender or religion.

Among the housing ads cited as objectionable by the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Inc. were ones that read "NO MINORITIES," "Requirements: Clean Godly Christian Male" and "Only Muslims apply."

Discriminatory ads would not be possible if Craigslist didn't offer the forum, according to Friday's ruling.

"That is not, however, a useful definition of cause," the court said. "One might as well say that people who save money `cause' bank robbery, because if there were no banks there could be no bank robberies."

The decision upholds a November 2006 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.

In dismissing the case, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve ruled that Craigslist serves as an intermediary party, not a publisher. She also said the federal Communications Decency Act protects sites that allow users to post unedited messages and communicate freely in forums.

"We're pleased the Court agreed that online service providers like Craigslist should not be held liable as `publishers' of content submitted by their users, and view this outcome as a win for the general public's ability to self-publish content (such as free classified ads) on the Internet," Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said in a statement.

The Chicago Lawyers' Committee said in a statement the group would not give up trying to root out housing providers who discriminate.

"While we are of course disappointed with the overall outcome of the case, we are gratified that the Court emphasized in the final paragraph of its decision that landlords and other housing providers who post discriminatory advertisements remain fully liable under the federal fair housing laws," the group said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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