Commentary

Judges Skeptical Of Illinois Sheriff's Campaign Against Backpage

Judges on a federal appeals panel suggested on Friday that Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart took his campaign against Backpage too far when he wrote to Visa and Mastercard to demand that they stop processing payments for the online classifieds site. 

"A police official has to be very careful in what he says," 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner told Dart's attorney, Hariklia Karis.

"This is not Tom Dart as a private citizen writing a letter," Posner said. "Anybody receiving an official communication from a sheriff is going to feel that there is an implicit threat to follow this up with official action."

Posner's comments came during a 45-minute hearing about whether Backpage is entitled to a restraining order against Dart.

The online classifieds site sued Dart earlier this year, shortly after Visa and Mastercard said they would no longer process payment for transactions on Backpage.com. That move came after Dart wrote to the companies -- on official letterhead -- and asked them to stop allowing their credit cards to be used to purchase adult services ads. Dart, like many other observers, says that many of Backpage's "adult" ads are actually prostitution ads.

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"If the industry has decided not to allow credit cards to be used to gamble, buy pot or watch pornography, then why allow them to be used to facilitate prostitution, even in cases of child sex trafficking?" Dart wrote in his letter. "Make no mistake: Your cards have and will continue to be used to buy ads that sell children for sex on sites like Backpage.com."

In July, Backpage sought a court order prohibiting Dart from continuing with efforts to cut off the site's funding. Backpage -- which argues that it isn't responsible for crimes committed by users -- said its business was jeopardized as a result of Dart's letters to Visa and Mastercard.

U.S. District Court Judge John Tharp in the Northern District of Illinois initially accepted Backpage's argument, but later rejected the company's position.

Among other reasons, Tharp said that Dart had a free-speech right to voice his opinion to the credit card companies. Tharp also said there was evidence that Mastercard and Visa were considering ending their relationship with Backpage before he got involved.

The appellate judges didn't appear convinced by either of Tharp's conclusions. Circuit Judge Diane Sykes told Dart's attorney that his letter "goes well beyond the expression of opinion."

"This is a cease-and-desist letter, and requires an immediate response," Sykes told Karis. "It's on his official stationery, and he's expressing himself as the sheriff of Cook County."

Dart's attorney argued that representatives from Visa and Mastercard said they didn't perceive the letter as a threat, but the judges were skeptical.

"That's ridiculous," Posner told Dart's lawyer. "These companies -- they don't feel they can defy an official with the authority that Dart has."

Dart's attorney persisted, arguing that a Visa executive said in an affidavit the company didn't perceive itself threatened.

"Well, what do you expect him to say?" Posner asked. "We're knuckling under to threats?"

Sykes added: "This is objectively threatening, whether the credit card companies will subjectively admit that or not -- and they have a public relations interest in not subjectively admitting that."

3 comments about "Judges Skeptical Of Illinois Sheriff's Campaign Against Backpage".
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  1. Randall Tinfow from CLICK-VIDEO LLC, November 13, 2015 at 6:18 p.m.

    In most other jurisdictions this wouldn't phase me.  However, Cook County (Chicago), IL, has become the homicide capital of North America, with more than 6000 shootings in the past 3 years.  Doesn't this guy have something better to do than harass an online publication?

    I used to live in Chicago.  I wouldn't stop for dinner on the Near North today!

  2. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, November 13, 2015 at 9:11 p.m.

    There are three distinct arms of government in the USA; Legislative, law enforcement and judiciary.  There is no legal overlap. Judges don't drive around in police cars and arrest people, and law enforcement officers are forbidden from doing what Sheriff Dart did. It's as simple as that. He over-stepped his duties, by a bunch, and he should not only be sued but should be disciplined for his ignorance.

  3. Bruce Liebowitz from UP ALL NIGHT SONGWRITER, November 14, 2015 at 12:16 a.m.

    If backpage feels that it is okay to have children on their site for porn or whatever, then they should be  imprisoned 'cuz that's simply child abuse. They should know better than to exploit a child. I do not know if Dart overstepped is boundries or not, but that is beside the point and I am glad that he did. Backpage shut be shutdown NOW! should be shut down. I am sick of the judicial system failing us by allowing such behavior. Do what's right Judge, the cc companies were going to stop the processing anyway. 

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