Backpage.com sues state to halt law aimed at online child sex ads

Friday, June 29, 2012 at 10:02am

Backpage.com is suing Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper along with the 31 district attorneys general across the state in an effort to put the brakes on a law set to go into effect next week.

The suit — filed in U.S. District Court in Nashville on Wednesday — seeks an injunction against a looming state law that would make criminally liable any person or company selling ads involving commercial sex with anyone appearing to be a minor if they don’t make a reasonable attempt to verify the individual’s age.

Backpage claims that Tennessee Public Charter 1075 would have a chilling effect on free speech online and that it’s unconstitutional, violating the Communication Decency Act of 1996, the First and 14th amendments, and the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The online classified ads company claims in the court filing that if enacted the law “would impose an intolerable burden on speech across the country.”

The law would make it illegal to sell advertisements that “would appear to a reasonable person” to include a “commercial sex act … with a minor” even if, as the suit states, “no such content is ever published or the ad does not actually concern a minor.” Any person or company found guilty of such an infraction could then be punished with up to 15 years in prison and a minimum fine of $10,000.

Furthermore, such a company would be responsible for verifying the age of anyone used in any ad via government-issued identification and would not be able to argue that it “didn’t know” a person included in a posted ad was underage.

In practice, the online ad company says the obligation of verifying the age of millions of users a year — Backpage.com claims it had 3.3 million posts in April alone — is just unfeasible. “Although its ostensible purpose — to prevent the sex trafficking of children — is laudable, the law is not,” the suit states.

Backpage.com has taken a considerable amount of heat from those protesting its use of online adult personal and escort ads that some say encourage and foster the practice of human sex trafficking.

Campaigns by attorneys general across the country successfully pressured online classified giant Craigslist to remove its adult escort section. Much of that business then moved to other websites, such as Backpage.com.

The Backpage suit claims the new restrictions would not only limit its business but also censor online content in this state and elsewhere.

“In all likelihood,” the suit reads, “online service providers and other publishers will choose a [to] stop allowing third-party content altogether, or at least, all adult-oriented content. And, because Public Chapter 1075 is not limited to conduct within Tennessee, online service providers may also be compelled to attempt to block or censor for Tennesseans information and content available elsewhere in the country.”

Ryan Dalton, of Operation Broken Silence, a Tennessee anti-human-trafficking organization that helped shape the law in question as well as similar other ones, said the company’s move was expected given its recent legal success in the state of Washington.

A federal court there has already granted a temporary injunction against a similar law, which Backpage claims forces websites “to become the government’s censors of user-submitted content” through the threat of felony prosecution.

On June 5, a federal court in that state granted Backpage’s motion calling for a temporary restraining order against that law two days before it was set to take effect.

While Dalton said he too had concerns over freedom of expression issues relating to online advertisements, “I trust that the Sixth Circuit will make a Constitutionally sound decision, whatever that may be. However, the law does give Backpage a fair opportunity to ethically monitor their ads by verifying the age of their posters and in doing so avoid criminal liability while protecting youth.”

Dalton added, “The refusal of Backpage to filter or remove illicit conduct, particularly the sex trafficking of children, is unacceptable, and unless a legislative act can compel unethical classified ad websites like Backpage to become responsible, children will continue to be sold by traffickers and Backpage will continue to profit from the horrors that these children will endure.”

A spokeswoman for the Tennessee attorney general said attorneys from that office were still reviewing the suit and were not immediately prepared to comment on it. According to the attorney general’s office a preliminary injunction hearing is set for 10 a.m. July 30 in U.S. District Court Judge John Nixon’s courtroom.

Public Chapter 1075 was slated to become effective Sunday, July 1, but will not be enforced at least until after that hearing.
 

8 Comments on this post:

By: Jughead on 6/29/12 at 9:09

This lawsuit is not about free speech. It is simply backpage.com suing to keep ad revenue by pandering to pedophiles.

America ---and backpage.com----is a cesspool of immorality. Can we self-implode already and rebuild with people who are industrious and not deviant?

By: Bellecat on 6/29/12 at 12:06

I agree with Jughead.
It is about money, and nothing ---not even putting children in a life of horror, will derail this bunch from pursuing that money. Do companies have no conscience, no morals, no thought for their fellow man?

Where in the world are the principled, decent people who want to make the world a BETTER place? Is anyone listening?

By: sonny1024 on 6/30/12 at 7:48

i agree its all about the money BUT any law that even hints of messing with free speech has to be watched closely in order for something sneaking through the back door.it might be a legal way they have come up with to shut back page down for good.tn law makers along with police have a way of nibbling at our rights and freedom just watch closely to see if something else is behind this new law.

By: pswindle on 6/30/12 at 5:38

Shut them down. How many young people will have thier lives ruined?

By: Ask01 on 7/1/12 at 4:33

sonny1024 makes an excellent point.

While eradicating the child sex trade and, for that matter, any similar businesses exploiting unvoluntary 'workers' should be a primary concern, I cannot help but wonder what doors this might open allowing unwanted future intrusion into law abiding citizens personal lives.

We should have learned after the rash of pre-emptive laws following 9-11, purportedly to combat terrorism but which could be used, with warrants and other justifications worded properly against average citizens.

Case in point, suppose local law enforcement suspected a band of citizens of some sort of wrong doing. If their desired action were thwarted by a lack of evidence because none existed, or departmental incompetence, alluding to a terrorist connection of any sort could conceivably be used to side step Constitutional protections provided by the Bill of Rights, and allow a SWAT style invasion hoping to find the needed evidence.

I know, the example is far fetched but I would not be surprised to see such a ploy attempted.

Likewise, giving too much leeway in a situation such as this could generate unforeseen, as yet unimagined consequences adversely impacting citizen rights in the future.

Let's be sure we as citizens keep as tight a rein on government as possible.

On a related note, I find downright hilarious the fact conservatives always accuse liberals of seeking to expand government controls and authority, yet we most often see conservative administrations seeking to not only expand government oversight, but in doing so, curtail civil rights.

But that is a rant best reserved for another time.

Have a wonderful, and if possible, cool Sunday evening.

By: FaceBook:Emmett... on 7/2/12 at 9:25

It seems backpage - like the now eliminated category on Craig's List - is just advertising for pimps and worse. I have no problem with shutting them down. These outfits will readily prohibit the advertisements for perfectly legal sales of firearms, but it takes some huge legal effort to get them to stop pimping, even pimping children. Oh, what a lovely country we've become!

By: jonw on 7/4/12 at 10:29

JON

It should be "criminally liable for any person or company selling ads involving commercial sex with anyone - - - -PERIOD.

By: Jughead on 7/5/12 at 3:54

America--glorious home for all things deviant, protected by the 1st Amendment. But don't forget--that same Bill of Rights does not apply to Christians or conservatives.