Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Federal judge says Backpage.com is full of prostitution ads

SHARE Federal judge says Backpage.com is full of prostitution ads
SHARE Federal judge says Backpage.com is full of prostitution ads

A federal judge has said that Backpage.com’s adult services section “overwhelmingly contains advertisements for prostitution, including the prostitution of minors.”

U.S. District Judge John J. Tharp Jr. made the comment in a ruling Monday that denied the classified ad website’s bid for a preliminary injunction against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. Backpage.com officials accused Dart of infringing on its free speech rights by recently calling on credit card companies to sever ties with the website.

Dart has long maintained that Backpage.com allows users to fill its site with prostitution ads.

But Backpage.com’s lawyers contend the ads posted in its “adult” category make up less than 10 percent of its overall content. Robert Corn-Revere, one of the website’s attorneys, also told Tharp last month, “Let’s not confuse escort ads with prostitution ads.”

But Tharp wrote in his ruling that many of the ads “clearly solicit payments for sex.”

“Symbols, photographs, and videos depict what words cannot,” Tharp wrote.

A Backpage.com official declined to comment Monday night.

Corn-Revere told the judge last month that June 29 letters from Dart to Visa and MasterCard amounted to “informal prior restraint.” The website sued Dart over his crusade.

Dart introduced himself in the letters as “Sheriff of Cook County, a father and a caring citizen.” But those words appeared on the sheriff’s official letterhead, and Dart referred to financial institutions’ “legal duty” to file suspicious activity reports.

“It’s hard to find a more startling example of an informal prior restraint,” Corn-Revere said, adding at the time that there had been no credit card transactions on the site since July 6.

Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Sisavanh Baker said the First Amendment rights belong to the people posting the ads on Backpage.com, not the website. She also said the site had begun to offer free ads, and they’ve increased since Visa and MasterCard cut ties.

Meanwhile, Assistant State’s Attorney Daniel Gallagher said he wasn’t not aware of any action Dart could take against the credit card companies, mitigating any perceived “threat” by Dart.

Both sides are expected back in court Tuesday.

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