Federal judge issues preliminary injunction against Washington state law on online sex ads

U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez on Friday issued a preliminary injuction against a new Washington state law intended to force Backpage.com and other Web sites to verify the age of people who place online classified sex ads.

On March 29, Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law a dozen bills meant to fight sex trafficking, including one aimed at commercial websites such as backpage.com that publish escort ads that have been blamed for exploiting minors for sex. 

Village Voice Media Holdings LLC, the parent company of Backpage.com, filed suit in early June, arguing the law is unconstitutional. 

On Friday, Martinez granted Village Voice Media's motion for a preliminary injunction against the law.

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna, King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg and state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who sponsored the legislation, issued statements opposing the judge's decision and Backpage.com's arguments.

"Rather than fight the selling of children through responsible business practices, Backpage has chosen to fight in our courts those who battle human trafficking," McKenna said. "While they are entitled to do that, we will do all that is within our power to see that they fail.

"Promoting illegal acts such as child prostitution is not protected by federal law or the United States Constitution. We strongly disagree with today’s decision and will consult with lawmakers and county prosecutors about our options moving forward," McKenna said.

Under the new Washington law (Senate bill 6251), an online site such as backpage.com must be able to prove that it made "a reasonable, bona fide attempt to ascertain the true age" of a person depicted in an ad, prior to publishing, through an ID card or other identification.

If not, website officials could be charged with "advertising commercial sexual abuse of a minor," an offense punishable by up to one year in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

In a statement issued June 4, when the suit was filed, Liz McDougall, general counsel for Village Voice Media Holdings,  said the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle seeks a declaratory judgment that the new Washington law is invalid and a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law.

She said the suit argues, among other things that SB 6251 “violates the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution."

"The law purports to apply to anyone who “causes directly or indirectly” prohibited content to be 'published, disseminated or displayed,' and so it would make online services like Backpage.com, NWSource.com and craigslist, social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo!, and hundreds of other OSPs (online service providers), criminally liable for online content, whether they were aware of the content or not.”

McDougall added, “The trafficking of children for sex is an abomination. I believe aggressive improvements in technology and close collaboration between the online service community, law enforcement and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) is the best approach to fighting human trafficking.

"Unlawful governmental intrusion into the fundamental foundation of a robust Internet that places liability for the criminal acts of third parties on OSPs, which will force criminal conduct back underground and OSPs off-shore outside the reach of law enforcement, is both unworkable and counter-productive in the fight,” she said.