FAN 106.1 (First Amendment News) Sheriff Dart Petitions Court — Contests Posner Opinion in “Adult Services” Ad Case
Cook County’s Sheriff Thomas Dart is back on the legal news with a cert. petition filed today in the Supreme Court (Dart v. Backpage.com). The Sheriff is being represented by Michael F. Williams (counsel of record) of Kirkland and Ellis. Also on the brief are Anita Alvarez (Cook County State’s Attorney), Paul A. Castiglione, Sisavanh B. Baker, and Jill V. Ferrara (Assistant State’s Attorneys). In other words, Cook County is spending some big money to contest Judge Richard A. Posner’s ruling in Backpage.com v. Dart (7th Cir., Nov. 30, 2015).
First the 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. Sheriff Dart 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. On August 21, 2015, a federal district court denied Backpage.com’s motion for a preliminary injunction, though it had previously granted a TRO in the case.
Back page appealed and prevailed.
The 7th Circuit Ruling: In true Posnerian form, the Judge’s opinion was blunt (“The suit against Craigslist having failed, the sheriff decided to proceed against Backpage not by litigation but instead by suffocation”), skeptical of dubious claims (“[A]s explained in an amicus curiae brief filed by the Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, and DKT Liberty Project, citing voluminous governmental and academic studies, there are no reliable statistics on which Sheriff Dart could base a judgment that sex trafficking has been increasing in the United States”), and not prudish in its discussion of adult sex (“One ad in the category “dom & fetish” is for the services of a “professional dominatrix”— a woman who is paid to whip or otherwise humiliate a customer in order to arouse him sexually. See What It’s Actually Like Being A Dominatrix” [link omitted]).
Moreover, Posner was not one to blindly accept convenient rationalizations made by counsel on appeal: “At oral argument Dart’s attorney reminded us that ‘nowhere in Sheriff Dart’s letter does it say that he thought that they [the credit card companies] were accomplices to a crime.’ But the letter implies that they are—and it was the letter that prompted the credit card companies to abandon Backpage. They are unlikely to reconsider on the basis of a lawyer’s statement at oral argument, months after the initial threat.”
And then there was the no-nonsense injunction Judge Posner issued in the case:
Sheriff Dart, his office, and all employees, agents, or others who are acting or have acted for or on behalf of him, shall take no actions, formal or informal, to coerce or threaten credit card companies, processors, financial institutions, or other third parties with sanctions intended to ban credit card or other financial services from being provided to Backpage.com.
Sheriff Dart shall immediately upon receipt of this order transmit a copy electronically to Visa and MasterCard and all other recipients of his June 29, 2015, letter (includ- ing therefore the directors of and investors in Visa and MasterCard), as well as to the Chief Inspector of the United States Postal Service.
Backpage.com shall not be required to post a security bond.
The Cert. Petition
Counsel for Sheriff Dart advance two main arguments:
- “The Injunction Entered by The Seventh Circuit in This Case Impermissibly Restrains Petitioner’s Own Rights to Speak About Matters of Public Concern,” and
- “The Seventh Circuit Erred, in Conflict With Decisions of Other Federal Circuit Courts, in Holding the Mere Threat of Government Action, Without More, Could Establish an Unlawful Prior Restraint”
In the Sheriff’s cert. petition, Mr. Williams argues:
Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit directed the entry of an injunction against Sheriff Dart because credit card companies, voluntarily and independent of any supposed threat by the Sheriff, decided to cut ties with Backpage. The injunction restrains the Sheriff’s own protected speech on matters of public concern, and the injunction interferes with the Sheriff’s efforts to administer important policies on behalf of the people of Cook County. The court erred, in conflict with rulings by this Court and other federal court of appeals, in entering the injunction. The Sheriff respectfully asks this Court to grant the petition for writ of certiorari in order to address the important First Amendment issues raised here.
→ Robert Corn-Revere was lead counsel for Backpage in the Seventh Circuit.