St. LOUIS (CN) — Backpage.com has sued Missouri’s attorney general, claiming his demand for information about human trafficking on its website is unconstitutional — a lawsuit the attorney general quickly denounced as frivolous, saying, “there is no First Amendment right to engage in human trafficking.”
Backpage sued Attorney General Joshua Hawley late Tuesday afternoon in Federal Court.
Since being elected in November 2016, Hawley has been a vocal critic of Backpage, calling its adult personal ads a heaven for prostitution and human trafficking.
Hawley in May issued a civil investigation demand seeking more than seven years of documents regarding the Backpage’s business practices.
On Wednesday, hours after the lawsuit was filed, The Associated Press reported: “Recently discovered documents that seem to show that a contractor for the highly criticized classifieds website Backpage.com solicited and created sex-related ads on behalf of the site go against often repeated claims by Backpage that it’s never had a role in creating or developing third-party content on its site.”
The AP story was published in The Washington Post and elsewhere on Wednesday. The AP said the story was first reported by NBC News.
Citing the article, Hawley said in a statement: “The information revealed today by the Washington Post is simply further evidence of legal maneuvering by a company with a completely meritless case.”
He added: “My message to Backpage is that there is no First Amendment right to engage in human trafficking. And this frivolous lawsuit will not deter me from pursuing the eradication of this terrible crime in Missouri.”
In its lawsuit, Backpage claims that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 prohibits state-law civil or criminal claims against Internet websites and publishers based on content created by third parties.
“Considered the most important law in the country protecting free speech online and fostering development of the Internet unfettered by government interference or regulation (as Congress expressly intended), Section 230 has been applied in over 300 cases to hold websites immune and state laws preempted,” the lawsuit states.
Backpage says at least seven courts have struck down efforts from state and local authorities against websites that offer adult-oriented ads. It claims Chris Koster, Hawley’s predecessor, acknowledged four years ago that Section 230 prohibits any state civil or criminal claims against Backpage.
Hawley’s approach differs from previous attempts by state authorities, by using investigative powers and threatening civil and criminal penalties under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.
Backpage objects: “Attorney General Hawley has initiated an invasive investigation of Backpage.com based on third-party content it publishes, issuing an enormously broad civil investigative demand (‘CID’) to Backpage.com and its CEO, demanding over seven years’ worth of documents encompassing essentially all business operations of the company; its ownership, organization and personnel; financial records and revenues; efforts to screen and block content; adult ads posted in Missouri; and much more,” the lawsuit states.
It continues: “The Attorney General is misusing the MMPA to burden, harass and inhibit First Amendment-protected communications. Indeed, the MMPA itself specifically recognizes that liability under the act should rest with the third parties who advertise, and not with the publishers that distribute the ads.”
Civil lawsuits have not been Backpage’s only problems. A U.S. Senate subcommittee report this year called Backpage’s defense “a fiction,” and said the company knows its website facilitates prostitution and sex trafficking of children.
The 53-page report from the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was titled: “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking.”
Called testify to the subcommittee, four of Backpage’s top executives and its attorney refused to testify, citing the Fifth Amendment.
The subcommittee reported in its Executive Summary: “Backpage is involved in 73 percent of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) receives from the general public (excluding reports by Backpage itself). The National Association of Attorneys General has aptly described Backpage as a ‘hub’ of “human trafficking, especially the trafficking of minors.”
A court hearing is set for Friday in California on money laundering and pimping charges against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and site creators Michael Lacey and James Larkin. Key to the money-laundering allegation is prosecutors’ claim that “most of Backpage’s revenue came from ads for paid sex,” according to the AP report.
Backpage.com has been sued at least 20 times in civil courts, according to the Courthouse News database; 13 of those cases involve sex trafficking. In one recent case, filed in Cook County Court on May 17, a mother claimed that her 16-year-old daughter was murdered after she was offered for sex on the website.
In its own complaint, Backpage is represented by Mark Sableman with Thompson Coburn in St. Louis. It claims that Missouri’s demands are unconstitutional. It wants them enjoined, plus attorney fees.