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EXPERT AVAILABLE: MU Law Expert Says Fair Housing Ruling is Correct

Housing law expert believes First Amendment rights need to be protected

Feb. 03, 2012

Story Contact(s):
Nathan Hurst, hurstn@missouri.edu, 573-882-6217

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – This week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that roommate-seekers who discriminate in their choice of living companion are not covered by the Fair Housing Act. Rigel Oliveri, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri School of Law and a housing law expert, noted that the 9th Circuit found a conflict between the Federal Housing Act and the First Amendment.

“The court recognized that the government cannot hinder the right to freely associate, especially in a circumstance as intimate as choice of roommates,” Oliveri, who is also the associate dean for faculty research and development at the MU School of Law, said.

The Federal Housing Act (FHA) prohibits housing advertisements from expressing preferences based on race, ethnicity, religion, or familial status. Even ads that mention no preference but give biographical information about the advertiser that includes race, ethnicity, religion, or familial status may violate the federal law. The law as written applies to roommates as well as to landlords and other housing providers.

The new federal ruling found that roommates – and by extension roommate-matching websites – are exempt from the FHA. Oliveri ultimately agrees with the court’s findings.

“If the FHA was held to apply to roommates, the potential for privacy invasion and backlash would have been significant,” Oliveri said. “People would be very offended to hear that the government had a say in their choice of who they share intimate living space with.”

Oliveri acknowledges that the ruling is a blow to fair housing advocates, but believes that the law needs to be applied equally in all circumstances.

“This ruling does allow people to be discriminatory when deciding who to live with, but that goes along with the territory,” Oliveri said. “If you are going to protect the First Amendment freedom of association in this context, then you have to allow it across the board. While some results may be ugly, the principle has to stay the same.”

Oliveri recently published an article, “Discriminatory Housing Advertisements On-Line: The Lessons of Craigslist,” in the Indiana Law Review. Her article analyzed 10,000 on-line housing advertisements, and  argued for the result the 9th Circuit reached.

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