FAN 85 (First Amendment News) “Is phone sex violent?” — Posner challenges lawyer in online classified advertising case
There’s no sex in your violence — Bush, “Everything Zen“
Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner was in a plucky mood last week when Backpage,com v. Dart was argued before his panel, which included Judges Diane Sykes and Kenneth Ripple. ) More about Judge Posner (and sex) shortly, but first a few things about the case.
→ Facts: Backpage.com is the second largest online classified advertising website in the U.S., after Craigslist. Users post more than six million ads monthly in various categories, including buy/sell/trade, automotive, real estate, jobs, dating and adult. Users provide all content for their ads; Backpage.com hosts the forum for their speech. Thomas Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, wanted to eliminate online classified advertising of “adult” or “escort” services. And why? As the Sheriff saw it, such ads were little more than solicitations for prostitution. He also argued that these ads facilitate human trafficking and the exploitation of children. Last June the Sheriff sent letters to the CEOs of Visa and Mastercard to “request” that they “cease and desist” allowing their credit cards “to be used to place ads on websites like Backpage.com, which we have objectively found to promote prostitution and facilitate online sex trafficking.” It worked; the companies blocked the transactions.
→ District Court: Backpage.com went to federal court and first sought a temporary restraining order and later a preliminary injunction based on First Amendment grounds. District Judge John J. Tharp Jr. presided over the case. “In arguing that it is likely to succeed on the merits,” said Judge Tharp, “Backpage contends that Dart’s actions constitute precisely the type of informal prior restraint condemned as a First Amendment violation in Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan (1963).” Judge Tharp thus concluded: “The Court makes no judgment as to the merits of Backpage’s claims, and any factual findings it has made are preliminary only and not binding in any proceedings on the merits.” On August 21, 2015, the court denied Backpage.com’s motion for a preliminary injunction, thought it had previously granted a TRO in the case. In any event, Backpage.com appealed.
Excerpts from Oral Arguments in the 7th Circuit
Below are select excerpts, which I transcribed, from the oral arguments in the Seventh Circuit. The arguments began with a presentation by Robert Corn-Revere. Judge Posner did not pose any questions to Appellant’s counsel anytime during the arguments, though Judges Sykes and Ripple did ask a few questions. Ms. Hariklia Karis argued on behalf of Appellee Sheriff Dart. Her arguments, by contrast, were met at the outset and thereafter with vigorous questioning from Judge Posner as indicated by the excerpts below.
Judge Posner: “You know, a police official has to be very careful in what he says. This is not Tom Dart as a private citizen, writing a letter to a newspaper or something, saying he doesn’t like Backpage. This is all done, office of the Sheriff, official stationary — well anybody receiving an offcial communication from a sheriff is going to feel there is an implicit threat to follow this up with legal action.”
Ms. Karis: “Your honor, both VISA and Mastercard have both established that they did not receive or perceive this an an offical threat. . . .”
Judge Posner: “You believe that?”
Ms. Karis: “I absolutely believe that, and the the evidence is undisputed –“
Judge Posner: “Well, that’s ridiculous. These people, these companies do not feel they can defy an official . . . There’s nothing, you know, that Dart has.”
Ms. Karis: “VISA has spoken and submitted an affidavit in this court, which the district court considered, in which their vice-president for global brand reputation specifically said [that] he did not view the letter –“
Judge Posner: “Well what do you expect them to say?”
Ms. Karis: “Your honor –“
Judge Posner: “We’re knuckling under to threats? . . . Look, the tone of [the Sheriff’s letters] is so unprofessional. He talks about a violent industry; is phone sex violent? . . . “
Ms. Karis: “It can be.”
Ms. Karis: “It certainly can.”
Judge Posner: “How?”
Ms. Karis: “Depending on whether children are involved — “
Judge Posner: “We’re not talking about children here. . . . And all the adults are getting swept up with the children?”
Ms. Karis: “The adults are not getting swept up with the children.”
Judge Posner: “Well they are. Adults who participate [chuckling] in phone sex with each other are potential targets. And what about old people, old men [chuckling] who would like to be seen with a young woman. Right? That is an aspect of the escort service; it’s not all sex!”
Ms. Karis: “Sheriff Dart did not take down the content or propose to take down the content of Backpage’s webpage, which was not illegal conduct. MasterCard in particular, to your Honor’s question of the recipient receiving this and what can they say, MasterCard had already decided that they no longer wanted to be affiliated with Backpage one week before Sheriff Dart ever sent that letter out. That evidence is undisputed.”
Judge Posner: “Well, I’m sure that VISA and MasterCard don’t want to spend their time fending off whacks from Sheriff Dart. Right? These companies make a decision. Right? They don’t want to be slandered by a high government official.” Read More