Missouri AG Boosts Trafficking Task Force After Win Over Backpage

ST. LOUIS (CN) – Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley announced plans Thursday to ramp up his anti-sex trafficking efforts, two days after a federal judge tossed a lawsuit against his office filed by notorious ad website Backpage.com.

Hawley said his statewide Human Trafficking Task Force will offer assistance to nonprofits struggling to find funding for their own anti-trafficking efforts.

Hawley’s task force, established in April, is the first of its kind in Missouri and includes law enforcement officials, local prosecutors, social-service providers, victims’ advocates, and human-trafficking survivors.

“Not only is finding the funding difficult, but the application process is also extremely burdensome for smaller groups in the state,” Hawley said in a statement. “This is why the Task Force is stepping in – to help nonprofits navigate the complicated application process so that no other group is ever discouraged or forced to shut its doors. Empowering nonprofits in Missouri will enhance both law enforcement’s ability to prosecute traffickers and our state’s capacity to provide survivors with the critical services that they need.”

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Patricia L. Cohen dismissed Backpage’s lawsuit against Hawley. Backpage, one of Hawley’s main targets in his anti-sex trafficking initiative, filed the complaint in July, claiming that Hawley’s investigation and demands violate the company’s constitutional rights.

In its lawsuit, Backpage argued that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 prohibits state-law civil or criminal claims against websites and online publishers based on content created by third parties.

But in a 23-page dismissal order, Judge Cohen found Backpage failed to state a claim.

“In support of its position that AG Hawley acted in bad faith, Backpage alleges that ‘[AG Hawley] and his office have admitted Section 230 bars state prosecution of Backpage,’” Cohen wrote. “Backpage points to a letter to Congress from multiple states’ attorneys general that AG Hawley signed on August 16, 2017. Contrary to Backpage’s argument, however, the statements in that letter do not constitute an admission that the CDA bars any state action, especially when considered in light of AG Hawley’s separate letter to Congress of the same date.”

Emails to Backpage and its lead attorneys requesting comment on the dismissal were not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.

Hawley praised Cohen’s decision in a separate statement.

“I am glad the court rejected this meritless lawsuit,” Hawley said. “My office is now able to move beyond legal sidestepping and focus on what matters—fighting to eradicate this terrible crime in Missouri.”

Since being elected in November 2016, Hawley has been a vocal critic of Backpage, calling its adult personal ads a haven for prostitution and human trafficking.

In May, Hawley issued a civil investigation demand seeking more than seven years of documents about Backpage’s business practices, prompting the website’s lawsuit in July.

Backpage, the second-largest classified ad website in the U.S. behind Craigslist, has been targeted by regulators for years because of concerns about its adult ads, with claims they promote sex trafficking, including minors who have allegedly been prostituted on the website.

The ad website was also the target of a recent 53-page report from the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations titled: “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking.”

St. Louis is considered a hub for human trafficking due to its central location and access to numerous interstates.

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