Craigslist Pulls ‘Erotic’ Listings Under Legal Fire

Published August 1, 2009

Classified ad Web site agreed to remove its erotic services ads after South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster threatened legal action against the company for facilitating prostitution, a case rife with sticky free speech and liability issues.

Craigslist has replaced the section with a category labeled “adult” services, which the company has vowed to monitor.

Craigslist last year reached an agreement with 40 state attorneys general to require adult services ad posters to pay up to $10 per ad and provide a working phone number.

The latest move comes after a string of police investigations involving the erotic services respondents, employment scams, murder, and other crimes that had at least some connection to the popular classified ad site. A North Carolina man was charged with first-degree rape and other charges in June after police said he arranged on Craigslist for his wife to be raped by another man.

Federal Protection

Congress passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to regulate pornography and indecent behavior on the Internet, but the U.S. Supreme Court partially overturned the law in the 1997 Reno vs. American Civil Liberties Union decision. The Court ruled the indecency provisions violated the free speech protections of the First Amendment.

Section 230 of the law states Internet service providers and Internet publishers are not legally liable for customers’ illegal conduct. Citing that provision, Craigslist filed suit in federal court in June, seeking to prevent McMaster from bringing charges against the company.

“Craigslist is entirely correct to sue the state attorneys general because they are ignoring the law,” said Ryan Radia, an information policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. “Any criminal actions here are being committed by certain users, not Craigslist, so the users are the ones who should be subject to criminal [law enforcement].

“If Craigslist is ultimately required to delete certain content or censor user postings, that will set a very dangerous precedent for online user speech,” Radia added.

Compliance Questions

There are some indications that Craigslist is not fulfilling its monitoring promise. In June, one month after Craigslist agreed to police adult listings, an ABC News report discovered sexual ads posting hourly rates and requests to trade drugs for sex.

Radia says it doesn’t matter if Craigslist is complying or not, because no law compels the company do so.

“Under Section 230, Craigslist is not liable for content that users post,” Radia said. “What the attorneys general are doing is a run around the Communications Decency Act. The act exempts Craigslist from liability, not only from federal criminal acts but also from laws at state level. Craigslist should not be forced to limit the use of its site to satisfy state attorneys general.”

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.