A federal judge Friday granted Backpage.com a restraining order against a Chicago sheriff, who investigates human sex trafficking and says Backpage.com’s paid “adult” ads provide an avenue for that illegal activity.
Backpage.com, which has long accepted paid adult-oriented classified ads by users, asked U.S. District Judge John J. Tharp. Jr., for a restraining order against Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart.
Sheriff Dart had recently written letters on his office letterhead to the top officials of Visa and MasterCard advising them that Backpage.com’s adult advertising is suspected of being used for sex trafficking.
Credit-card companies can cancel or block transactions or activities that can “impair” their brand business reputation, Sheriff Dart noted to the heads of Visa and MasterCard, Judge Tharp wrote in his order.
The sheriff also said that financial institutions are required to file Suspicious Activity Reports for suspected human trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors, and then asked for someone at Visa and MasterCard to contact about these issues
Both credit-card giants withdrew from Backpage this month, despite being involved with the online classifieds website for 11 years.
Judge Tharp agreed with Backpage that Sheriff Dart’s letters may have acted as a threat to the credit-card companies.
The judge also agreed that their termination of business Backpage.com threatens its viability, as the company “cannot remain in business long without its ad revenue.” Backpage accepts Bitcoin, but this is far less used than the credit cards.
Thus, Backpage.com is entitled to a temporary restraining order to stop the sheriff from “any further efforts to ‘defund’ its business until a full hearing can be held” on Backpage.com’s request for preliminary injunction, Judge Tharp wrote Friday.
A July 28 status hearing is set in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.
Cara Smith, chief strategy officer for the sheriff’s office, said Friday that the judge’s order was “not at all” surprising.
Our office is looking forward to continuing “this very, very important litigation,” she said.
Liz McDougall, general counsel for Backpage.com, said the order is an important reaffirmation “of the critical role of the Internet in free speech and the continued evolution of e-commerce.”
“It also serves as an emphatic reminder that government officials cannot undertake to destroy websites even when they disagree with hosted speech,” Ms. McDougall said.