NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal judge has ruled that a Tennessee law passed last year that targets online sex ads violates free speech rights.
The Tennessean cited an opinion written by Judge John T. Nixon that says the law is written in a way that infringes on freedom of speech and interstate commerce laws. The purpose of the law is to protect children from sex trafficking.
The issue went to court when Backpage.com filed a lawsuit alleging the new regulation violated the First Amendment and other federal protections. Backpage.com publishes millions of ads each month, including those that sell adult services, and said it would be impossible to screen every ad posted to its site and the law hurt its business.
Nixon granted the company’s request for a temporary restraining order against the law.
Antoinette Welch, assistant district attorney in Nashville, said websites like Backpage are used in a majority of sex trafficking case prosecuted by the district attorney general’s office.
“The websites are helping to promote something illegal, and children and women are being sold on their sites,” Welch said. “They should be held responsible, fined at the very least.”
Lawyers for Backpage said in the original complaint that online service providers can’t be held responsible for material posted by another person and that federal law forbids infringing on the right to free speech.
The suit argued that the law prevents online forums for “legitimate public speech,” adding that “the law chills speech and deters e-commerce and the growth and development of the Internet.”
The law was passed after a 2011 finding by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that sex trafficking in the state is a significant problem.
“Human trafficking and sex slavery in Tennessee is more common than previously believed possible,” according to the study, which noted that many pimps used online ads.
Although Nixon agreed that “states have an undisputed interest in dispelling” child sex exploitation, he said Tennessee needed to find a different way to address the problem.
“The Constitution tells us that —when freedom of speech hangs in the balance — the state may not use a butcher knife on a problem that requires a scalpel to fix,” Nixon wrote. “Nor may a state enforce a law that flatly conflicts with federal law.”
It was unclear Friday whether the state attorney general’s office planned to appeal the ruling.