There aren’t many business owners who might cheer for more government regulation, but I can’t help but applaud legislators in Washington state for standing up to protect their young citizens from falling into a world of human slavery and prostitution.
The new state law, which was set to take effect last week, allows classified advertising to be criminally prosecuted for publishing sex-related ads peddling children, unless they can prove a good-faith attempt to verify the age of the advertised person. Days before it was set to take effect, Backpage filed suit against the state over the law and won a 14-day restraining order, pending a judge’s decision.
I continue to be just appalled by the reasoning that Backpage applies when it defends its actions publicly – and I certainly hope that the judge in Washington sees past Backpage’s morally-questionable arguments about being a friend to law enforcement or human rights organizations that are working to help victims avoid the traps of human slavery.
Also see: CNN: A lurid journey through Backpage.com
The company argues its site is not a haven for prostitution but instead one that provides a marketplace for a legal sexual encounters between consenting adults. That may be true – just as neighborhood bars provide a place for adults of legal drinking age to drink liquor. But the owners of those bars are required to check the identification of the people who enter their businesses, especially if they have reason to believe that the customer is under the legal age. If they fail to do so, they can be criminally prosecuted – as it should be.
The argument is the same for classifieds, whether online or a community-based publication. Backpage should be required to either check IDs or shut down that portion of its site. Otherwise, someone should go to jail the first time a child is advertised for sexual favors.
Backpage makes a lot of money – tens of millions of dollars – through the sex ads on its site and is certainly not afraid to spend some of that money on a gang of lawyers that will argue jurisdiction and First Amendment and attack the law itself for being unconstitutional or vague. The lawyers have already issued a reminder to the judge that, just because a law has a laudable goal doesn’t make it valid.
While I have continued to be dismayed at other judicial decisions I’ve seen in my time, I have to believe that the judge in Washington will see past the hot air that Backpage has been blowing and uphold the state’s law. The states have an obligation to protect their citizens, especially those too young to protect themselves.
We have rules about the types of businesses that can – or cannot – be established within certain distances from schools. We have labor laws that are designed to protect children from excessive work and there are social agencies that remove children from their homes when neglect or abuse are suspected.
And yet a company that publishes sex-ads can’t be held responsible for accepting an advertisement that clearly offers children for sale for sex?
It’s hard to imagine that there isn’t already a law.