CHICAGO — Backpage.com, the classified listings website, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Cook County Sheriff, who recently persuaded several credit card companies to stop offering their payment services on the site.
MasterCard Inc. and Visa Inc. said that they would stop processing ad sales on the site, heeding a call from Sheriff Thomas Dart (Dem), who alleged in a letter to the companies that the website’s adult section helps fuel the illegal sex industry. Earlier, American Express had halted processing sales on the “adult” section of the site.
In the suit, filed in federal district court in Chicago, Backpage says the sheriff, in using his legal authority to persuade the card companies to discontinue their dealings with the website, violated the free speech rights of individuals who use the service to post ads.
The filing asks the court also to award Backpage damages making up for lost revenue and goodwill resulting from the lost business.
“Sheriff Dart’s actions to cripple Backpage.com and all speech through the site are an especially pernicious form of prior restraint,” the suit said. “He has achieved his purpose through false accusations, innuendo, and coercion.”
Liz McDougall, general council to Backpage.com LLC, said, “Our goal is to ensure that one elected official, particularly a county sheriff, cannot dictate what speech is or is not appropriate.”
Mr. Dart’s office acknowledged that Backpage’s business model is protected by the law, because Backpage isn’t responsible for the content posted on its website. But Ben Breit, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s office, said the sheriff requested that the credit card companies voluntarily discontinue their relationships with Backpage “in the name of good corporate citizenship.”
“It is regrettable that Backpage has dedicated so many resources to lawyers and lobbyists when they could be partnering with law-enforcement to seek justice for sex trafficking victims,” a statement from the sheriff’s office read.