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Washington abandons Internet sex trafficking bill following federal court ruling

The US District Court for the Western District of Washington [official website] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] that the state's most comprehensive underage sex trafficking law is unconstitutional, prompting legislators to drop their defense of the law. In particular, Judge Ricardo Martinez found that Senate Bill 6251 [materials], which required Washington Internet websites to document that advertised escorts were at least 18 years of age, violates several provisions of both the First and Fourteenth [Cornell LII backgrounders] Amendments to the US Constitution [text]. Since then, the state has seemingly accepted that the bill's language went too far [AP report] in criminalizing the dissemination of advertisements with "an explicit or implicit offer for a commercial sex act to occur in Washington." In addition to violating free speech, being unconstitutionally vague, being overly broad, and violating the Commerce Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder], Martinez also found that the law violates and is preempted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act [text], which declares that Internet service operators are not to be construed as publishers, and are thus not legally liable for third-party speech used via their services. The state was consequently ordered to pay $200,000 in attorney's fees to plaintiffs Backpage.com, LLC and The Internet Archive [official website], a non-profit digital library.

Senate Bill 6151's intention was to prohibit anyone from "advertising [the] commercial sexual abuse of a minor if he or she knowingly publishes, disseminates, or displays, or causes directly or indirectly, to be published, disseminated, or displayed, any advertisement for a commercial sex act." Though the goal is commendable, its language has been received with skepticism by the courts. In July Martinez granted a preliminary injunction [order, PDF] for the plaintiffs in an opinion that foreshadowed the law's ultimate invalidation. Backpage.com initially filed the lawsuit [complaint, PDF] in June.

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