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Are Internet Publishers Responsible for Advertisements for Potential Sexual Liaisons with Minors?

Are internet publishers responsible for advertisements for potential sexual liaisons with  minors?  In the middle of last year, a US District Court for the District of New Jersey found that a New Jersey Statute creating such responsibility was likely unconstitutional. After that ruling, the parties negotiated and earlier this month, they settled. As part of the settlement, there will be a permanent injunction prohibiting the statute from being enforced.

The case, Backpage.com LLC v. Hoffman et al., United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (Civil Action No.: 2:13-CV-03952), involved a challenge by Backpage.com and Internet Archive seek to avoid punishment for posting such advertisements. The statute in question, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-10, New Jersey’s Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection, and Treatment Act, sets forth strict anti-trafficking laws. It states,

A person commits the offense of advertising commercial sexual abuse of a minor if:

(1)   the person knowingly publishes, disseminates, or displays, or causes directly or indirectly, to be published, disseminated, or displayed, any advertisement for a commercial sex act, which is to take place in this State and which includes the depiction of a minor; or

(2)   the person knowingly purchases advertising in this State for a commercial sex act which includes the depiction of a minor.

Violators could be guilty of a first-degree criminal offenses. A publisher could not hide behind the defense that they were unaware of the depicted person’s age without substantial proof; they would need to demonstrate they made a legitimate attempt to determine the minor’s age by requiring identification.

Backpage.com and Internet Archive proposed an order to permanently enjoin enforcement of N.J.S.A. 2C:13-10. They wanted to stop its enforcement perpetually on the grounds that it violated the Communications Decency Act (which treats online service providers as not responsible for third party materials) and the First and Fourteenth Amendments. They claimed the provision violated free speech and due process as well as imposed criminal liability without proof of intent. They also asserted that it would be impractical to demand identification of everyone posting such online advertisements.

Ultimately, the parties settled for a permanent injunction preventing enforcement of the statute.

© 2014 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC