Missouri AG Hawley: Backpage Lawsuit 'Frivolous,' No First Amendment Right To Human Trafficking | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri AG Hawley: Backpage Lawsuit 'Frivolous,' No First Amendment Right To Human Trafficking

Jul 12, 2017
Originally published on July 12, 2017 3:25 pm

This story was updated at 1:06 p.m. to include comments by Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley in a phone interview.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley struck back Wednesday at Backpage.com, the controversial classifieds website that sued him the day before, saying “there is no First Amendment right to engage in human trafficking.”

The website’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in St. Louis, alleges that  Hawley was seeking to shut down Backpage “by using investigative powers and threatening civil and criminal penalties under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.”

“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,” Backpage alleged in its lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed the same day the Washington Post published a long investigative piece finding that, despite Backpage’s insistence that it doesn’t control sex-related ads posted on its website, a contractor for Backpage aggressively solicited such ads.

The Post said documents it obtained showed Backpage hired a company in the Philippines to lure advertisers on sites run by its competitors and offered them free ads on Backpage.com.

Backpage has long claimed that it is protected by the First Amendment and the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which bars civil or criminal claims against websites based on content created by third parties.

Hawley began his investigation of the company in May, requesting documents from the company that he said could be protecting human traffickers.

In a news release Wednesday, he said: “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 a phone interview, Hawley elaborated, saying that relevant federal law does not protect websites or any media-based company “that deliberately engages in illegal activity, and that is exactly the series of allegations that Backpage faces. These are substantive allegations based on substantive evidence.”

Hawley said that Backpage had not responded to any of his investigative demands.

“They’ve stonewalled me for weeks and weeks now, and now they’re trying to sue me to stop it,” he said.

Backpage did not respond to a request for comment through one of its attorneys.

Other states have pursued Backpage via criminal statutes. Hawley has taken a different approach, invoking Missouri’s consumer protection law to go after the company.

Backpage lists classified ads for everything from cars to real estate. It is the second largest classifieds website after Craigslist.

In January, under government pressure, it suspended its adult ad pages.

Three month earlier, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested in Houston on charges of trafficking and pimping underage women. Two other men, both shareholders of the company, were charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.

Hawley said that while Backpage had suspended its adult ad pages, “what we have found is that most of that activity has migrated to other sections that are still up.”

“They have not shut down those portions and so much of the suspected trafficking activity has just migrated to those other portions, which they know full well," he said.

Hawley said there was “copious evidence” in the public domain suggesting that Backpage deliberately helped traffickers run trafficking operations through its website and developed an algorithm to help it identify what ads and postings were trafficking-related.

“And then rather than taking those down, they actually helped the people who were posting them to conceal the illegal nature of the activity. And all of this so that they could profit,” Hawley said.    

He said that if the allegations weren’t true, “then the evidence will exonerate them.”

“But the fact that they will not give us any evidence and have taken every possible measure to prevent us from getting the evidence – as I say, it's pretty damning,” Hawley said.

Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

The website’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in St. Louis, alleges that  Hawley was seeking to shut down Backpage “by using investigative powers and threatening civil and criminal penalties under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.”

“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,” Backpage alleged in its lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed the same day the Washington Post published a long investigative piece finding that, despite Backpage’s insistence that it doesn’t control sex-related ads posted on its website, a contractor for Backpage aggressively solicited such ads.

The Post said documents showed Backpage hired a company in the Philippines to lure advertisers on sites run by its competitors and offered them free ads on Backpage.com.

Backpage has long claimed that it is protected by the First Amendment and the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which bars civil or criminal claims against websites based on content created by third parties.

Hawley began his investigation of the company in May, requesting documents from the company that he said could be protecting human traffickers.

In a news release Wednesday, he said: “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.”

Other states have pursued Backpage via criminal statutes. Hawley has taken a different approach, invoking Missouri’s consumer protection law to go after the company.

Backpage lists classified ads for everything from cars to real estate. It is the second largest classifieds website after Craigslist.

In January, under government pressure, it suspended its adult ad pages.

Three month earlier, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested in Houston on charges of trafficking and pimping underage women. Two other men, both shareholders of the company, were charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.   

Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

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