Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart violated the 1st Amendment rights of Backpage.com when he sent a letter to the executives of Mastercard and Visa pressuring them to refrain from processing credit card transactions between Backpage and its advertisers, ruled the 7th Circuit on November 30 in a sweeping free speech opinion by Circuit Judge Richard Posner. Backpage.com, LLC v. Dart, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 20728, 2015 WL 7717221.
Wrote Posner, “The Sheriff of Cook County, Tom Dart, has embarked on a campaign intended to crush Backpage’s adult section – crush Backpage period, it seems – by demanding that firms such as Visa and Mastercard prohibit the use of their credit cards to purchase any ads on Backpage, since the ads might be for illegal sex-related products or services, such as prostitution. Visa and Mastercard bowed to pressure from Sheriff Dart and others by refusing to process transactions in which their credit cards are used to purchase any ads on Backpage, even those that advertise indisputably legal services.”
Dart’s ire is specifically aimed at the “adult” section of Backpage.com, which is “subdivided into escorts, body rubs, strippers and strip clubs, dom[ination] and fetish, ts (transsexual escorts), male escorts, phone [sex], and adult jobs (jobs related to services offered in other adult categories, whether or not the jobs are sexual – not every employee of a brothel is a sex worker).”
District Judge John J. Tharp, Jr., had denied Backpage’s motion for a preliminary injunction against Sheriff Dart, reasoning that he was just exercising his own free speech rights by writing to Visa and Mastercard to express his disgust with the sexually-oriented advertising and alluding to the credit card companies’ potential liability under a federal money-laundering statute.
To Posner and the other members of the panel (Circuit Judges Ripple and Sykes), Dart was doing more than just expressing a personal opinion. “While he has a First Amendment right to express his views about Backpage,” wrote Posner, “a public official who tries to shut down an avenue of expression of ideas and opinions through ‘actual or threatened imposition of government power or sanction’ is violating the First Amendment,” citing American Family Association, Inc. v. San Francisco, 277 F.3d 1114 (9th Circ. 2002).
The 7th Circuit panel saw through Dart’s carefully-worded letter to perceive the implicit threat of a boycott and possible prosecution. Posner pointed out that if Backpage was engaging in any unlawful activity, Dart could prosecute the organization directly. Dart had attempted to do that with Craigslist, but was rebuffed by the district court in Dart v. Craigslist, Inc., 665 F.Supp. 2d 961 (N.D. Ill. 2009). “Craigslist, perhaps anticipating Dart’s campaign against Backpage, shut down its adult section the following year,” Posner observed, “though adult ads can be found elsewhere on its website. The suit against Craigslist having failed, the sheriff decided to proceed against Backpage not by litigation but instead by suffocation, depriving the company of ad revenues by scaring off its payments-service providers. The analogy is to killing a person by cutting off his oxygen supply rather than by shooting him. Still, if all the sheriff were doing to crush Backpage was done in his capacity as a private citizen rather than as a government official (and a powerful government official at that), he would be within his rights. But he is using the power of his office to threaten legal sanctions against the credit-card companies for facilitating future speech, and by doing so he is violating the First Amendment unless there is no constitutionally protected speech in the ads on Backpage’s website – and no one is claiming that.”
“The First Amendment forbids a public official to attempt to suppress the protected speech of private persons by threatening that legal sanctions will at his urging be imposed unless there is compliance with his demands,” Posner asserted. He picked apart Dart’s letter in detail, concluding that it was not a mere expression of Dart’s opinion, but rather was “designed to compel the credit card companies to act by inserting Dart into the discussion; he’ll be chatting them up.” The credit card companies certainly felt threatened; shortly after receiving the letter, both of them cut off Backpage and informed Dart of their actions, which he hailed at a press conference, with a press release claiming credit for their actions. Backpage was forced to make its ads free, forfeiting a major source of revenue, which led to this lawsuit.
Posner pointed out that a letter like Dart’s emanating from a private citizen “would be more likely to be discarded or filed away than to be acted on,” noting that the companies had received numerous such letters from private citizens in the past objecting to their facilitating operation of websites such as Backpage and Craigslist.
The court concluded that the credit card companies “were victims of government coercion aimed at shutting up or shutting down Backpage’s adult section (more likely aimed at bankrupting Backpage – lest the ads that the sheriff doesn’t like simply migrate to other sections of the website), when it is unclear that Backpage is engaged in illegal activity, and if it is not then the credit card companies cannot be accomplices and should not be threatened by the sheriff and his staff.”
Posner rejected Dart’s argument that most of the sexually-related advertising on Backpage is illegal. “Fetishism? Phone sex? Performances by striptease artists? (Vulgar is not violent.) 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. It’s not obvious that such conduct endangers women or children or violates any laws, including laws against prostitution,” wrote Posner. What is delightful about that paragraph, actually, is Posner’s citation to several on-line reference sources spelling out the activities of professional dominatrices. Indeed, the entire opinion is a delight to read, as Posner’s indignation with the sheriff’s abuse of power shines through the writing. The opinion is available free on the 7th Circuit’s website.
Backpage.com is represented by James C. Grant of Davis Wright Tremaine (Seattle) and Robert Corn-Revere and Ronald G. London of the same firm’s D.C. office. The court received amicus briefs from Ilya Shapiro on behalf of the Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, Dkt Liberty Project, and Wayne Giampietro on behalf of the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Association of Alternative Newmedia.