June 6, 2012
SEATTLE — A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked enforcement of a new Washington state law that would require classified advertising companies to verify the ages of people in sex-related advertisements.
In response to a lawsuit filed Monday by the website Backpage.com, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez granted a 14-day temporary restraining order. The law was due to take effect Thursday.
Backpage sought to block the law pending a judge’s decision on whether it should be struck down. Lawyers for Backpage contend the law is invalid even if it has a laudable goal.
Martinez scheduled a June 15 hearing on Backpage’s motion for a preliminary injunction.
Gov. Chris Gregoire signed Senate Bill 6251 into law in an effort to cut down on child sex trafficking. It allows for the criminal prosecution of classified advertising company representatives who publish or cause publication of sex-related ads peddling children. Proof of a good-faith attempt to verify the age of the advertised person is considered a defense under the law.
Backpage, which operates a robust online clearinghouse for escorts, is a primary target of the law. The company, which is owned by Village Voice Media, has come under scrutiny from authorities for allegations that it’s used to promote child prostitution.
“We are gratified that the court acted quickly and definitively to prevent the harm posed by (SB 6251),” said Liz McDougall, general counsel for Village Voice Media. “We believe human trafficking is an abomination that must be stopped. But SB 6251 is not the answer.”
In a statement Monday night, Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna criticized the lawsuit, saying while “Backpage executives claim to be allies in the fight against human trafficking,” they filed suit “to kill a law written to reduce the number of minors posted for sale online.”
McKenna promised to “forcefully defend this groundbreaking law.”
The company argues that the law is written so expansively that it would apply not just to classified advertising companies, but to dating sites, blogs, chat rooms and social networking sites.
Backpage also contends that the law is trumped by the federal Communications Decency Act, which says online service providers are not responsible for the content of ads placed by third parties. Backpage says Washington’s law is unconstitutionally vague, infringes on First Amendment rights and attempts to regulate activity outside of Washington state.
Village Voice Media owns 13 alternative weekly newspapers around the country, including Seattle Weekly, which already requires ID from those depicted in sex-related ads in its pages.