SEATTLE – A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction Friday to block enforcement of a new Washington state law that would require classified advertising companies to verify the ages of people in sex-related advertisements.
Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the law this year to cut down on child sex trafficking. The law received unanimous approval from the Legislature and had been scheduled to take effect in June, but courts have put its implementation on hold.
The decision U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez issued Friday stops the law from taking effect until the lawsuit challenging it can be heard in court.
The website Backpage.com and a nonprofit that runs a popular archive of Internet sites asked for the preliminary injunction.
Backpage, which is owned by Village Voice Media, makes millions of dollars a year operating an online clearinghouse for escorts. The company was the main target of the new law.
The Washington law would allow for the criminal prosecution of anyone who knowingly publishes or causes the publication of sex-related ads depicting children, unless they can show they made a good-faith effort to confirm that the person advertised was not a juvenile.
Backpage and Internet Archive argue the new law violates the Communications Decency Act of 1996, as well as the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments and the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.
In his ruling, Martinez found merit in some of their arguments that the state law would conflict with existing federal law. He also drew a distinction between the idea of the law and the reality of its enforcement.
“At first blush, requiring publishers to check identification before publishing an escort ad seems as commonsensical as requiring bar owners to check identification before allowing patrons to enter the door,” Martinez wrote.
But he goes on to say there is a key difference between the two because one asks for identification related to conduct and the other tries to impose the rule as it relates to speech. He notes that there is no constitutional right to drink, but there is one for free speech.
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna disagreed with the ruling and promised to continue to work with lawmakers and county prosecutors on their legal options.
“Rather than fight the selling of children through responsible business practices, Backpage has chosen to fight in our courts those who battle human trafficking. While they are entitled to do that, we will do all that is within our power to see that they fail,” McKenna said in a statement.
Efforts to reach Village Voice Media for comment late Friday were unsuccessful.
Democratic state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who sponsored the new law, said Martinez’s ruling proves it’s time for Congress to take another look at the Federal Communications Decency Act.
“I also disagree that the Constitution provides protections for speech advertising illegal activity,” Kohl-Welles said in a statement. “One thing remains clear: We must continue the war against sexual exploitation of children.”