By Brandon Gatto
The US District Court for the Western District of Washington on Thursday ruled (PDF) that the state's most comprehensive underage sex trafficking law is unconstitutional, prompting legislators to drop their defense of the law. In particular, Judge Ricardo Martinez found that Senate Bill 6251, which required Washington Internet websites to document that advertised escorts were at least 18 years of age, violates several provisions of both the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. Since then, the state has seemingly accepted that the bill's language went too far in criminalizing the dissemination of advertisements with "an explicit or implicit offer for a commercial sex act to occur in Washington." In addition to violating free speech, being unconstitutionally vague, being overly broad, and violating the Commerce Clause, Martinez also found that the law violates and is preempted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which declares that Internet service operators are not to be construed as publishers, and are thus not legally liable for third-party speech used via their services. The state was consequently ordered to pay $200,000 in attorney's fees to plaintiffs Backpage.com, LLC and The Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library.
Senate Bill 6251's intention was to prohibit anyone from "advertising [the] commercial sexual abuse of a minor if he or she knowingly publishes, disseminates, or displays, or causes directly or indirectly, to be published, disseminated, or displayed, any advertisement for a commercial sex act." Though the goal is commendable, its language has been received with skepticism by the courts. In July Martinez granted a preliminary injunction (PDF) for the plaintiffs in an opinion that foreshadowed the law's ultimate invalidation. Backpage.com initially filed the lawsuit (PDF) in June.