CHICAGO (CN) – An Illinois sheriff has illegally used backdoor methods to pressure credit card companies to stop doing business with Backpage.com, infringing on millions of users’ free speech rights, the website claims.
Backpage.com sued Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart in Illinois Federal Court. The website is the second largest online classified ad service in the U.S. after Craigslist, according to the complaint.
“For over six years, Sheriff Dart has pursued a campaign against online classified advertising websites – first Craigslist and then Backpage.com – demanding they shut down portions of their sites for adult-oriented ads posted by users. At every turn, Sheriff Dart has been stymied by the Constitution, federal law, and court decisions holding that such ads are protected speech and that websites are immune from state-law civil or criminal liability,” the lawsuit states.
Dart initially sought to have Craigslist declared a public nuisance and accused it of facilitating prostitution, but a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2009.
However, Craigslist soon “caved” to Dart’s attacks in 2010 and removed its “adult services” categories, the complaint states, before he shifted his attention to Backpage.
“Consistent with Backpage.com’s longstanding efforts to preclude improper ads and assist law enforcement, it sought to work with Sheriff Dart’s office on screening and security measures, including requiring the use of credit cards for adult ads, which Sheriff Dart requested at the time and Backpage.com has long done. But Backpage.com refused to capitulate to the sheriff’s demands for censorship,” according to the complaint.
Since Dart’s efforts to take legal action failed, he allegedly decided to go “out-of-the-box” and pressure credit card companies to cease honoring customer purchases at Backpage.com.
His efforts have been successful – Visa and Mastercard blocked use of their cards for any purchases on the website, while American Express blocked purchases in the adult category, according to the lawsuit.
Backpage claims that Darts actions have “effect[ed] an informal extralegal prior restraint of speech without due process,” and illegally bypass the court’s rulings.
“Sheriff Dart’s actions to cripple Backpage.com and all speech through the site are an especially pernicious form of prior restraint. He has achieved his purpose through false accusations, innuendo, and coercion, whereas, if he had brought suit directly or Cook County had attempted to pass a law to shut down the website, Backpage.com would have had a fair opportunity to respond and defeat such efforts, given well-established law,” the complaint states. “Backpage.com received no notice or opportunity to be heard before card services were terminated. Moreover, Sheriff Dart’s actions have not only infringed Backpage.com’s rights to publish and distribute speech, but the rights of millions of the website’s users to post and receive protected speech.”
Backpage has won lawsuits in New Jersey and Washington aimed at criminalizing the publication of sex ads that appear to offer sex with a minor.
The website seeks a declaration that Dart’s actions are unconstitutional, a reinstatement of credit card services, compensation for lost revenues, and punitive damages. It is represented by Christopher Allen with Paul Hastings LLP in Chicago.
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