Posted by: Olga Kharif on May 20, 2009
Today, craigslist announced it has sued South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster in federal court in South Carolina to forestall a criminal investigation McMaster announced last Friday. craigslist is “seeking declaratory relief and a restraining order with respect to criminal charges he has repeatedly threatened against craigslist and its executives.”
Essentially, craigslist is trying to push back against some measures the attorney general has taken against the site in recent weeks in order to combat prostitution in his state. McMaster alleges that prostitutes had advertised their services through craigslist; and prostitution is illegal in South Carolina and in the vast majority of other states.
In early May, McMaster threatened craigslist execs with criminal investigation unless they remove erotic services section from craigslist in South Carolina. And on May 15, the attorney general announced the investigation has commenced. “As of 5:00 p.m. this afternoon, the craigslist South Carolina site continues to display advertisements for prostitution and graphic pornographic material. This content was not removed as we requested. We have no alternative but to move forward with criminal investigation and potential prosecution,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.
craigslist claims it has removed the offending section on all of its city sites nationwide. And on May 20, McMaster issued another statement, announcing that craigslist has complied with his request but noting that “we had to inform them of possible state criminal violations concerning their past practices to produce a serious response.”
Now, craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster is firing back. “In addition to being unwarranted by the facts, legal experts agree that the charges threatened represent an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech, and are clearly barred by federal law (sec 230 CDA),” he wrote in a May 20 blog. “The open architecture of craigslist, quintessential to the value it provides for users, simply does not allow for the absolute prevention of solicitation or pornography, with respect to any of its categories and functions.” In effect, Buckmaster is pointing out that his site can only do so much to combat prostitution. Legal experts believe that now that the erotic services section is closed, more of these ads could leak into personals and other sections on the site. And they may be difficult, and expensive, to spot and remove.
This is likely to be a long, drawn-out battle, one that could change the freewheeling culture of craigslist, which has long allowed anyone to post most ads for free. The court clash will also test the very foundation of laws governing user-generated content such as classified ads, videos and blogs. After all, if craigslist can be held responsible for others’ ad postings, then other sites that allow consumers to post content could be held legally accountable, also. Fortunately for craigslist, it seems to have a lot of user support behind it (just scroll to the bottom ofthis blog).