SEATTLE (AP) - The website
Backpage.com may not be immune from state liability law and a lawsuit
filed by three young girls who said they were sold as prostitutes on the
website can proceed to trial, the Washington Supreme Court ruled
In a 6-3 decision, the justices said the federal
Communications Decency Act does not protect Backpage from state lawsuits
because of allegations that the company didn't just host the ads, but
helped develop the content.
"The plaintiffs before us have been
the repeated victims of horrific acts committed in the shadows of the
law," said Justice Steven Gonzalez, writing for the majority. "They
brought this suit in part to bring light to some of those shadows: to
show how children are bought and sold for sexual services online on
Backpage.com in advertisements that, they allege, the defendants help
The case should proceed because the girls have alleged
facts that, if proved, would show that Backpage helped produce illegal
content, the justices said.
Erik Bauer, the girls' lawyer, praised the decision.
"It says it's not legal to help pimps sell kids, even if you're a website operator," Bauer told The Associated Press.
Grant, a Seattle lawyer representing Village Voice Media Holdings LLC
and Backpage.com, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
lawsuit filed in Pierce County Superior Court claimed Backpage.com
markets itself as a place to sell "escort services" but actually
provides pimps with instructions on how to write an ad that works.
said the girls were in the seventh and ninth grades when adult
professional sex traffickers sold them as prostitutes on Backpage. The
pimps knew they could run the ads anonymously, he said. The suit claims
negligence, sexual exploitation of children, invasion of privacy, sexual
assault and civil conspiracy.
Backpage filed a motion to dismiss
the suit, arguing it isn't responsible for the actions of subscribers
or users and the federal law makes them immune from liability. A lower
court denied that request and Backpage appealed.
Grant told the
Supreme Court in October that when Congress wrote the Communications
Decency Act, it wanted to preserve free speech on the Internet so it
gave immunity to websites like Backpage for things posted by users or
members of the site. Backpage does not create the ads, and holding it
responsible would chill that speech, he said.
The justices in the majority decision disagreed.
law shields website operators from state law liability if the site is
just hosting content that was created by users, the justices said.
is important to ascertain whether in fact Backpage designed its posting
rules to induce sex trafficking to determine whether Backpage is
subject to suit under the CDA," Gonzalez wrote. A website that helps
develop illegal content falls under an exception in the federal law, he
Bauer said the next step is to set a date for a jury trial.
Sheryl Gordon McCloud, writing for the dissent, said the lawsuit should
be dismissed because the pimps wrote the ads, not Backpage personnel.
Congress gave immunity to "interactive service providers" but not for "content providers," she said.
for this case, a person or entity does not qualify as an information
content provider merely by facilitating an individual user's expression
of information, if it is the user alone who selects the content,"
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson praised the ruling.
decision is an important victory in the long-running fight to combat
sex trafficking of minors," Ferguson said in a statement.