WASHINGTON (CN) – Civil rights groups and a digital library claim the Trump administration’s new law targeting websites where sex solicitations are posted is unconstitutional and the most comprehensive censorship of online speech in decades.
Woodhull Freedom Foundation, Human Rights Watch, the Internet Archive, a massage therapist and an activist dedicated to the rights of sex workers filed a lawsuit Thursday in Washington, D.C., federal court against the federal government and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The plaintiffs say that the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, abbreviated as FOSTA, violates the First and Fifth Amendments.
“The problem is that FOSTA creates huge uncertainty about what you can say about sex work,” Dinah PoKempner, general counsel of Human Rights Watch, said in a phone interview Friday. “While none of the plaintiffs support sex trafficking… there are a variety of attitudes in the world about sex work itself.”
PoKempner said that from a human rights point of view, the criminalization of sex work more generally is a huge obstacle for helping sex workers protect themselves.
“We advocate decriminalizing sex work, consenting adult sex work. FOSTA is so broadly worded it can be applied to that type of advocacy. It’s a misguided effort. It could really harm the human rights of sex workers or anyone who wishes to speak or tweet or repost material about or in aid of sex workers,” PoKempner said.
The Justice Department did not respond Friday to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
FOSTA makes using a website with the intent to “promote” or “facilitate” prostitution a federal offense, expands liability for sex-trafficking offenses, and limits federal immunity for online platforms that host third-party speech.
The civil rights groups say that the law is the most comprehensive censorship of internet speech since 1996, when Congress passed the anti-indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down these provisions.
Aaron Mackey, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation that represents Woodhull Freedom Foundation in the case, noted that Craigslist shut down its personals section because of FOSTA.
“Craigslist shut down its therapeutic services sections… so a certified massage therapist can’t post ads trying to reach his potential customers to provide therapeutic massages,” Mackey said in an interview. “FOSTA has a wide-reaching impact.”
One of the plaintiffs, Eric Koszyk of Oregon, is a licensed message therapist who says he can’t post ads for his services on Craigslist anymore because of the new law.
According to the lawsuit, FOSTA uses “expansive and undefined terms” and imposes criminal penalties, as well as civil liability, to punish certain content and viewpoints online speakers publish.
“The law has already muzzled countless online speakers and led to closure of many online platforms that hosted their speech,” the complaint states.
The plaintiffs want the court declare FOSTA unconstitutional and prevent the government from enforcing it.
PoKempner, the Human Rights Watch attorney, predicts the law “will drive more speech from the internet” unless it is struck down.