Judge throws out lawsuit over sex ads

Thursday, August 18, 2011

ST. LOUIS — A federal judge in St. Louis has thrown out a lawsuit accusing Village Voice Media of knowingly allowing a pimp to advertise a teen prostitute’s sexual services on one of its websites.

The suit filed last year on behalf of the teen sought at least $150,000 in damages. It claimed that Backpage.com, a website similar to Craigslist, knew prostitution was being facilitated on the site but did nothing to stop it.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Mummert dismissed the suit on Aug. 15. The allegations “do not distinguish the complained-of actions of Backpage from any other website that posted content that led to an innocent person’s injury,” Mummert wrote. “Congress has declared such websites to be immune from suits arising from such injuries. It is for Congress to change the policy that gave rise to such immunity.”

Those comments were in reference to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Although the U.S. Supreme Court struck down many free-speech provisions of the CDA in 1997, Section 230 survived, providing protection for websites where users not affiliated with the sites can post material.

The girl’s attorney, Bob Pedroli Jr., was critical of the CDA provision and said he would appeal.

“We plan to continue our fight in the courts and we ask everyone who cares about sexual trafficking of children on the Internet to write to their senators and congressional representatives and tell them to change this law now,” Pedroli said.

Pedroli said websites like Backpage.com provided a “safe house” for pimps and customers to arrange child prostitution.

Phone messages left with an attorney for Village Voice Media were not returned.

The lawsuit did not list the name of the girl who said she became a prostitute at age 14. The girl’s pimp, Latasha Jewell McFarland, 28, of St. Louis, was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty in 2010 to federal prostitution charges.

In September 2010, attorneys general in 21 states sent a joint letter to Backpage.com, asking the site to drop its adult services section and to develop better safeguards to prevent illegal prostitution and child trafficking ads from migrating to the site’s other sections. Backpage said it would not drop its ads.

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