CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – Apparently pushed to its limit by a month of criticism and threats over sexual content and services, Craigslist sued South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster on Wednesday. The online classified service asked a federal judge for declaratory relief and a restraining order after McMaster threatened criminal charges against Craigslist and its executives.
The state’s circuit solicitors were also named as defendants.
Earlier this month, McMaster demanded Craigslist remove ads targeting South Carolina that he said enabled “solicitation of prostitution and the dissemination and posting of graphic pornographic material.”
McMaster said he based that charge on consultations with numerous sheriff’s departments. In Richland County alone – home to the state capital – sheriff’s deputies have made 121 prostitution-related arrests from Craigslist ads in the past two years, the Attorney General’s office said.
Craigslist, which has faced similar pressure from attorneys general in several other states, last week eliminated its “exotic services” category. The move came after a medical student in Boston, Philip Markoff, was charged with murdering a woman whose massage services he found on Craigslist.
In a deal it struck with attorneys general in Connecticut, Illinois and Missouri, Craigslist promised to monitor the ads it accepts in its still existing adult services category.
McMaster, however, deemed those changes inadequate
“The only agreement we could have is they block everything that’s sexually explicit in South Carolina,” McMaster told Courthouse News Service. He said that if Craigslist failed to do so, his office would have no alternative “but to move forward with our criminal investigation.”
He gave the company until 5 p.m. Friday to remove the ads.
Craiglist seeks a declaration that McMaster’s actions violate the First and 14th Amendments and the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. It also seeks an injunction against McMaster, who is considering a run for governor, from making threats of prosecution against its management in relation to third-party postings on its Web site.
Craigslist claims it is protected under the safe harbor provisions of the federal Communication Decency Act, which states that Internet companies are not responsible for the online activities of their users.
But McMaster said he didn’t buy that argument, asserting that where state laws are more stringent than federal laws and regulations, the state law should take precedence.
In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, McMaster characterized the filing of the suit as “good news.”
“It shows that Craigslist is taking the matter seriously for the first time,” the statement said. “More importantly, overnight they have removed the erotic services section from their Web site, as we asked them to do. And they are now taking responsibility for the content of their future advertisements. If they keep their word, this is a victory for law enforcement and for the people of South Carolina.”
Craigslist’s lead counsel is Joseph Griffith Jr.