Manuel Valdes / The Associated Press
A federal judge on Thursday struck down a Washington state law aimed at battling online sex trafficking after an Internet advocacy group filed a lawsuit challenging the measure’s constitutionality.
Judge Ricardo Martinez’s order was filed Thursday in Seattle after the state declined to continue arguing in U.S. District Court over Engrossed Senate Bill 6252, one of several measures written by lawmakers earlier this year to combat online sex trafficking. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the bill, aimed at online classified site Backpage.com, into law in March.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation sued on behalf of online library Internet Archive, arguing that targeting Internet service providers was unconstitutional and violated federal law. Backpage.com sued separately.
The organization said the Washington Legislature passed the law “despite its obvious potential to curtail legitimate speech.”
For example, the vague and overbroad statute threatened to impose felony liability not only on those directly engaged in illegal acts but also on those who “indirectly” caused to be “disseminated” any “implicit” offers for commercial sex acts. That could potentially affect services that merely provide access to information, like web hosts, ISPs, or online libraries, impeding their ability to operate,” the organization said in a statement.
Attorneys for Backpage.com and the EFF argued the state law came into conflict with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that protects online service providers from the acts of its subscribers or users.
State Attorney General Rob McKenna said unless Congress makes changes to that federal rule, an appeal to uphold the state law would have been lengthy and costly.
“We disagree with Judge Martinez,” state McKenna said in a statement. “We do not believe that advertisements for a service illegal in every state — prostitution — are protected by the Constitution. That part of his decision would likely be overturned upon appeal.”
Contrary to McKenna’s statement, prostitution is legal in Nevada in licensed brothels.
As part of Martinez’s order, the state will pay $200,000 to cover legal fees of Backpage.com and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Phoenix-based Village Voice Media Holdings LLC owns Backpage.com. It also owned free arts weekly newspapers across the country, including New York’s Village Voice and the Seattle Weekly, but the newspapers were sold to a separate company earlier this year.