In a victory for Backpage.com, a federal judge in Tennessee has permanently barred the state from enforcing a 2012 law regulating online ads.
That law, which was aimed at curbing the sex-trafficking of teens, prohibited Web site operators from selling ads that appear to offer a "commercial sex act" with a minor. Backpage sued to block the law last year, arguing that it conflicted with a federal statute that immunizes Web site operators from liability for crimes by users. The company also said the law was so broad that it could squelch legitimate speech.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Senior Judge John Nixon in Nashville granted Backpage's request for a permanent injunction prohibiting enforcement of the measure. Nixon previously issued a preliminary order blocking the statute, which he said “flatly conflicts with federal law.”
Nixon also said in the earlier ruling that the Tennessee law was unconstitutional because it applies to ads that “appear” to feature people who are underage, regardless of their actual age. "The state law is likely substantially broader than required for its regulatory purpose to protect the health and safety of minors trafficked in Tennessee," he wrote.
The Tennessee law was nearly identical to a law enacted in the state of Washington -- which also was declared unconstitutional last year.
The measures in both states appear to reflect growing desire on part of lawmakers and attorneys general to pressure Backpage to shutter its adult ads. Craigslist officially stopped accepting ads for adult services in September 2010. At the time, the company predicted that those ads would migrate to other sites.
While Backpage.com won its battle to block the new laws, the company's legal problems are not over. The classifieds site currently faces a lawsuit in Washington state by three teens who say they were sexually exploited by pimps who placed ads on the service. The teens allege that Backpage is liable because it “enabled and encouraged the abuse.”
An earlier, similar lawsuit against Backpage.com, brought by a teen in Missouri, was dismissed in 2011. The judge in that case ruled that the company was immune from liability for crimes by users.