A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Village Voice Media by a teen sex trafficking victim who argued that the company aided and abetted prostitution by allowing sex ads on Backpage.com.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Mummert III in the Eastern District of Missouri ruled this week that Village Voice Media was immune from liability under the federal Communications Decency Act. That statute provides that Web sites are not responsible for unlawful material posted by users.
Mummert rejected the teen's argument that Backpage should not be eligible for immunity under federal law because the company had structured its site in order to increase profits. The judge wrote that accepting that argument would "create a for-profit exception" to the federal law's immunity provisions. "This the Court may not do," he wrote.
The teen, identified in court papers as M.A., said in her lawsuit that she was prostituted at age 14 by an adult, Latasha Jewell McFarland, who allegedly posted Backpage.com ads that featured M.A.'s photo and advertised her as a paid escort for sex. The complaint, filed last September, alleges that Village Voice Media aided and abetted prostitution, as well as the exploitation of children and child pornography, by failing to investigate the ads.
Observers predicted when the case was filed that M.A. would have an uphill battle, given that other judges have ruled that Web sites are not responsible for illegal ads posted by users. In a similar case, U.S. District Court Judge John Grady in Illinois dismissed Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart's lawsuit against Craigslist for allegedly creating a public nuisance by running prostitution ads.
Despite winning in court, Craigslist decided one year ago to shutter its adult listings. Within a few weeks, a company executive testified at a congressional hearing about child sex trafficking that the company had already seen adult ads migrate to other sites.