Airbnb has filed a lawsuit against San Francisco in Federal District Court, seeking to invalidate the recent expansion of enforcement tools to regulate short-term residential rental listings. Ordinance 104-16 now requires hosting platforms to verify that a residential unit is on the City registry prior to listing and to requires them to respond to requests for information from the City. Violations can lead to civil penalties of $1,000 per day, as well as certain criminal penalties.
Airbnb alleges that the new ordinance violates its rights under the Communications Decency Act, which “expressly preempts state and local laws that treat a website ‘as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider’,” urging that, “instead of targeting speech, the City instead could simply enforce its existing short-term rental law directly against hosts who violate it”.
However, Airbnb also alleges that the new law violates its rights under the First Amendment, insisting that it is “a content-based restriction on advertising rental listings, which is speech”. Whether or not the new ordinance will survive judicial review as a constitutional economic regulation, it does seem inconsistent to advance a First Amendment argument while also disclaiming that listings are speech. And, in any event, simply verifying that a host has complied with the “Airbnb law” and obtained a listing number does not quite make the list of onerous restraints on speech. The Federal District Court also recently upheld the City’s buyout legislation, requiring a landlord to disclose certain rights to tenants concerning “buyout agreements” (offering money for the vacating of a rental unit) prior to having the discussion, against a constitutional challenge for restrictions on speech.