A federal appeals court in Chicago on Nov. 16 ordered Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart to end his campaign against sex trafficking of minors on the classified ad website Backpage.com. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Dart took his campaign against Backpage too far when he wrote to Visa and MasterCard requesting they stop processing payments for the website’s adult section.
In June, Dart sent a letter to VISA and MasterCard informing them of Backpage’s allegedly lax efforts to screen out ads that feature minors forced into sex trafficking. Many law enforcement officials have complained for years that the adult services ads on Backpage enable pimps to traffic women and children. Backpage accounts for about 70 percent of prostitution advertising among five websites in the United States that carry such ads and earns more than $22 million from prostitution postings, according to a 2012 estimate by AIM group, a media research and consulting firm.
“If the industry has decided not to allow credit cards to be used to gamble, buy pot, or watch pornography, then why allow them to be used to facilitate prostitution, even in cases of child sex trafficking?” Dart wrote. “Make no mistake: Your cards have and will continue to be used to buy ads that sell children for sex on sites like Backpage.com.”
Robert Corn-Revere, the Backpage lawyer, said the letters to the credit card companies, written on the sheriff department’s letterhead, amounted to cease-and-desist orders and the credit card companies perceived them as a threat.
The appeals court agreed.
“This is objectively threatening,” Judge Diane Sykes said.
“These companies don’t feel they can defy the official with authority,” Judge Richard Posner said. “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 that he doesn’t like Backpage.”
The court gave Dart 24 hours to send a copy of its order to VISA and MasterCard and all others who received his June 29 letter.
Dart’s attorney, Hariklia Karis, submitted evidence during Monday’s hearing that the credit card companies were already in the process of ending their relationship with Backpage prior to receiving the letters. She also submitted a statement from VISA that said company executives did not perceive Dart’s letter as a threat.
“And you believe that?” Posner asked Karis. “Well that’s ridiculous. What do you expect them to say?”
Posner also expressed doubt about the contents of Dart’s letter, which maintained Backpage’s adult section facilitates the “violent industry” of sex trafficking.
“He talks about a violent industry. … Is phone sex violent?” Posner asked. “What about all the old men who would like to be seen with a young woman on their arm? It’s not all sex. Even if Backpage abandons escorts and body rubs and so on … it’s really just a dating service. I think it’s outrageous to call it violent.”
— by Gaye Clark | WNS