Communications and Media

Online Want Ads Confront Free Speech Issues


Craigslist, the big classified ads website, dropped its ad listings for erotic services in 2009. But pimps and prostitutes continued to post sex trade ads under the website's "adult services" section. Now the website has gone a step further to block the adult services ads as well.

The change seems like a voluntary response. Craigslist has been pressured by state attorneys general and nonprofit groups who say the ads promoted the sexual exploitation of women and children.

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects Craigslist from liability for the ads. Under that law, websites that act as bulletin boards can't be sued for material posted by others.

Original Article

People used to look in the back of newspapers for all kinds of things, but now the internet has taken over. Then Craigslist made it even easier to post what you want or sell. Its "erotic services" section is also online for all to see - including children. Finally, attorneys general from around the country pressured the web site to drop the column. But is it gone for good?

The site has faced issues about its content before, but people are fed up with its "in your face" practice.

National Pressure on Craigslist

First there was eBay. Now there is Craigslist and other online sites to buy, sell and trade. Decades ago, magazines and newspapers monitored the content of their classified ads to keep them above-board, and only "certain" publications had risqué ads.

Now, ads are appearing for scandalous, risky and even illegal activity. This is helped by the fact that ads today are submitted electronically and often in "internet-speak" known to some but not others.

A year ago, rather than risk criminal or civil litigation, the site promised to drop the section for "erotic services." They also promised to manually screen for nude photographs and ads for illegal activity. Craigslist also promised to donate proceeds from its "adult services" section to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Attorneys general in Missouri and numerous other states subpoenaed Craigslist demanding it produce documentation proving it's kept its promises. Craigslist executives say they've been monitoring the site, but find the prostitution ads are still there.

Free Speech Concerns?

Are the attorneys general infringing on Craigslist's freedom of speech? Does an electronic web site have constitutional rights to free speech? These and other "big picture" questions are still unanswered. If civil or criminal suits are filed over this issue, courts will shed light on whether and how state governments or officials can regulate these ads.

In general, governments can legally regulate certain forms of "speech" without treading on your constitutional right to free speech. For example, yelling "FIRE!" in a crowded theater just for the fun of it isn't speech protected by your First Amendment rights.

Likewise, certain speech can be banned if it poses a danger to the public, or to certain segments of the public such as children. State laws regulate pornography, and child pornography is punished harshly. Other state laws prohibit soliciting or advertising prostitution. All of these restrictions are designed to protect the public.

Anonymity Isn't Guaranteed

Those who advertise on Craigslist and other online sites shouldn't assume their identity will be protected. State and federal prosecutors could subpoena Craiglist or other sites and demand that identifying details about the advertisers be revealed.

The Third District Illinois Appellate Court recently weighed in on the question of the privacy rights of someone posting comments on a newspaper's blog, using screen names. The court in Maxon v. Ottawa Publishing Co. noted that comments suggesting that someone bribed officials to get their zoning request approved wasn't merely an opinion, but could be interpreted as a statement of fact.

The court found that was sufficient to require the newspaper to reveal the identities of the bloggers. The court noted that someone who speaks via the internet doesn't get a higher degree of protection from defamation claims than those who speak through other media.

When statements made on the internet are for or about illegal activity, courts will likely find that the authors have very little, if any, privacy rights. Instead, public policy interests should prevail.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Under what circumstances can Craigslist give out my personal information?
  • What happens if the attorneys general win their suit against Craigslist?
  • Can I get into legal trouble because of my Craigslist ad?
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