WASHINGTON • Backpage.com, the online advertising site that has been the target of anti-sex trafficking activists, is suing Attorney General Loretta Lynch on First Amendment grounds to stop her from enforcing a new law aimed at advertising sex on the Internet.
The suit also mentions two main sponsors of a provision aimed at criminalizing the online advertising of illegal sex, Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. Backpage.com claims that Wagner and Kirk have pursued unconstitutional remedies to fight sex trafficking while not acknowledging the website’s efforts to try to prevent it.
Wagner and Kirk are not defendants, but they were among several members of Congress named in the lawsuit as either proposing unconstitutional remedies to advertising of illegal sex trafficking or defending the bill’s wording.
“Members of Congress and others have assailed Backpage.com for many years, despite the website’s extensive efforts to prevent, screen, and block improper ads from users,” the suit, filed in federal court in the District of Columbia, says.
It asks for an injunction preventing Lynch from enforcing provisions in the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation — or SAVE — Act, a court declaration that the law is unconstitutional and legal expenses for filing and pursuing the lawsuit.
The suit was filed by Robert Corn-Revere of the Davis Wright Tremaine LLP firm. Requests for a comment were not immediately answered.
Wagner issued a statement in response to the suit.
“The SAVE Act was the result of months of consultation with legal and industry experts and I am confident that it will stand up to judicial review,” she said. “For years, Backpage.com and other websites like it have profited off the sexual exploitation of women and children while using legal loopholes to hide their morally repugnant business model.”
She said that Backpage.com “has made it painfully clear where they stand — in favor of modern day sex slavery.”
In a statement, Kirk said that “the owners of Backpage.com are nothing more than pimps who make millions from selling sex with children online.”
He said that “they can hide behind profits and lawsuits but they are criminals — there’s no gray area — and the Department of Justice should hold them accountable.”
Requests for a response from the Justice Department were not immediately answered.
Backpage.com’s lawsuit continues the company’s aggressive pushback against congressional action and criticism.
Last month, the Dallas-based company’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, ignored a subpoena to appear before a Senate subcommittee looking into alleged sex trafficking on the Internet. The top two committee members, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said then they were considering asking the Justice Department to file criminal contempt charges against Ferrer.
John LaBombard, a McCaskill spokesman, said Thursday that his boss would have no comment.
In its lawsuit, Backpage.com points out that it has successfully sued on First Amendment grounds to stop laws clamping down on online classified advertising in three states. Backpage.com’s lawyers argue that, like those state laws it successfully challenged, the SAVE Act is “unconstitutionally vague, overbroad, and (infringes on) First Amendment rights” of free speech.
“Contrary to statements of some of the SAVE Act’s congressional supporters, criminal liability cannot be imposed on a website merely for providing a forum for speech that some individuals misuse for sex trafficking,” the lawsuit says.
An aide to Kirk said the senator is confident the federal law will pass constitutional muster because it was more carefully crafted than the state laws referenced in the lawsuit.
In January, Wagner and Kirk were among six signers of a letter to Lynch’s predecessor, Eric Holder, asking the Justice Department to “aggressively investigate and dismantle” what they called “the nation’s most active sex trafficking website.”
Provisions of the SAVE Act were folded into anti-sex trafficking legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama in May.
In its lawsuit, Backpage.com says that while adding the term “advertises” to acts covered under criminal sex trafficking, the legislation does not define what constitutes an advertiser.
Backpage.com has long argued that it is better to keep sex advertising in the open to help law enforcement catch those trafficking illegally. It made that argument again in the lawsuit against Lynch.