Appeals Court Won't Revive Teens' Sex Trafficking Case Against Backpage

Handing Backpage a sweeping victory, a federal appeals court has refused to revive a lawsuit accusing the company of facilitating sex trafficking through the design of its online classifieds site.

"The law requires that we, like the court below, deny relief to plaintiffs whose circumstances evoke outrage," an appellate panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 3-0 ruling. Among the judges were retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who sometimes hears cases in the 1st Circuit.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by three teen six trafficking victims, who argued that the online classified site's business model "generates enormous profits from knowingly participating with and aiding traffickers in the sexual exploitation of children."

Backpage argued that the federal Communications Decency Act immunizes Web companies for crimes committed by users. Digital rights advocates' backed the company, arguing that Web sites would lose their ability to serve as a forum for unfiltered speech if operators had to police the sites for crimes.

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“If online service providers were required to engage in protracted and expensive litigation whenever plaintiffs alleged that they were harmed by user-generated content hosted or transmitted by intermediaries, these online platforms for users’ speech would inevitably become more expensive, more restrictive, and ultimately less available for individual expression,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy & Technology and Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the trial judge.

A federal judge in Boston sided with Backpage and dismissed the lawsuit last year. The appellate court affirmed that ruling this week.

"Congress did not sound an uncertain trumpet when it enacted the CDA, and it chose to grant broad protections to internet publishers," the appeals judges wrote. "Showing that a website operates through a meretricious business model is not enough to strip away those protections. If the evils that the appellants have identified are deemed to outweigh the First Amendment values that drive the CDA, the remedy is through legislation, not through litigation."

The ruling marks the second major victory for Backpage in recent months. Last November, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals enjoined Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart from "formally or informally" attempt to persuade credit card companies from providing services to Backpage.com.

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