The operators of the country's second largest online classified advertising website have sued Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, alleging the county’s top law enforcement officer, in his attempt to shut down what he believes to be online advertising for prostitution and other illegal services linked to child exploitation and human trafficking, stepped out of bounds in pressuring Visa, Mastercard and American Express to no longer accept payment for ads placed on the site.
On Tuesday, July 21, Backpage.com filed suit in Chicago’s federal court against Dart and the sheriff’s office, asking the court to slap the sheriff with an injunction preventing him from continuing with his efforts against Backpage and to withdraw allegedly threatening requests Dart made of the credit card companies to work with him or face potential investigative actions themselves.
In its complaint, Dallas-based Backpage said Dart has circumvented the law and exceeded his authority in taking “an extralegal and unconstitutional” action to pressure the credit card companies in an attempt to “cripple” and ultimately shutter the website in retribution for Backpage’s refusal to follow the lead of rival classifieds site Craigslist and remove the section of its website under which “adult services” can be advertised.
The lawsuit followed the actions by first American Express and then Visa and Mastercard earlier in July to place Backpage among the merchants for whom it will not process payments. That move, in turn, came after Dart sent letters to the credit card companies demanding they “defund” and “sever ties with Backpage.com.”
Dart’s action to hit Backpage in the purse have followed years of public efforts by Dart to remove advertising linked to prostitution and other criminal sex trafficking activity.
In its complaint, Backpage noted Dart’s failed attempt to sue Craigslist to force it to shut down its “erotic services” category. And the complaint noted failed attempts by other states to outright prohibit such advertising, as courts found the laws unconstitutional.
Backpage contends Dart’s pressure of Visa, Mastercard and American Express is an “out-of-the-box idea” concocted by the sheriff to achieve through financial pressure and threats what the law does not allow him to do directly.
In its complaint, Backpage asserts it routinely works with law enforcement to track and monitor sex trafficking, referring suspicious advertising to police on an ongoing basis.
In public statements following the announcements by Visa and Mastercard regarding their severing of ties with Backpage, Dart has scoffed at that notion, saying Backpage’s resistance to shutting down their adult services section has complicated the efforts of police to investigate and prosecute pimps and others involved in trafficking.
In the wake of the decision by Visa and Mastercard, Backpage said it has been forced to cease charging for ads until the court can decide the matter, as the website has virtually no means of processing payment and users would be unable to post any ads, effectively shutting down the website.
“Providing services for free can only be a temporary measure, however,” the complaint states. “All publishers need revenues to survive, and the First Amendment precludes coercive government actions to choke off revenues to silence speech it disfavors.”
In addition to the injunctions, Backpage has also requested the court award unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the sheriff.
Backpage is represented in the action by attorneys from the firm of Paul Hastings LLP, with offices in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and the firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, with offices in Seattle and Washington, D.C.