Backpage Seeks To Block Missouri's Sex Trafficking Investigation

Online classifieds site is asking a federal judge to block Missouri Attorney General General Joshua Hawley from pursuing action against the company as part of a crackdown on sex trafficking.

Hawley "has made no secret of his intention to censor, despite bedrock federal law preempting his actions and many court decisions declaring his goals and tactics unconstitutional," Backpage writes in court papers filed Thursday.

Backpage is asking U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Patricia Cohen in St. Louis to issue an injunction blocking Hawley from enforcing a "civil investigative demand" that would require Backpage to turn over seven years' worth of records relating to operations and editorial practices.

The company's fight in Missouri is the latest in a long string of battles with state law enforcement officials over ads related to sex trafficking. Backpage -- which previously successfully sued state officials in Washington, Tennessee and Illinois -- argues that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects web sites from prosecution for ads posted by users.

"The Attorney General’s CID and his public statements make clear that here he has no interest in pursuing individuals who may have actually been involved in illegal activities using the Internet," Backpage writes in a request for an injunction. "Instead, he wants to shut down -- the intermediary that provided the forum where online information appeared. This is exactly the opposite of Congress’ policy choice in Section 230 -- that holding intermediaries liable would chill speech by causing them to over-censor third-party content."

Hawley's office has said it is investigating whether Backpage violated a state consumer protection law that bans unfair and deceptive practices. But Backpage counters that the federal Communications Decency Act trumps state laws, including Missouri's consumer protection measure.

In January, Backpage said it would shutter its "adult" ads section, which observers said mainly contained prostitution ads. But since then, many of those ads since appear to have migrated to other sections of the site.

In addition to its courtroom battles with state attorneys general, Backpage has faced numerous civil lawsuits brought by sex-trafficking victims. The company has prevailed in many of those cases. Most recently, in January, the Supreme Court refused to reinstate a lawsuit claiming that Backpage facilitated sex trafficking. But Backpage continues to face new actions: Since January, at least six new lawsuits were brought against the company on behalf of victims of sex trafficking.

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