NEWARK, N.J. — A New Jersey law aimed at combating the sexual trafficking of minors via the Internet hit another roadblock Friday when a federal judge ruled it conflicts with federal law and likely is unconstitutional as well.
U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh’s ruling puts on hold indefinitely the law signed by Gov. Chris Christie in May that penalizes anyone who knowingly publishes or disseminates any ad for a commercial sex act that includes the depiction of a minor.
The law was challenged in a lawsuit filed in late June by Backpage.com, a website that has become the nation’s top forum for ads for thinly veiled references to prostitution since Craigslist shut its adult services section in 2010. Cavanaugh issued a temporary restraining order shortly after the suit was filed.
During oral arguments Friday, he lauded the motives behind the law but said those didn’t outweigh the fact that it is pre-empted by federal legislation from the 1990s that gives websites and Internet providers a measure of immunity for content provided by third parties. He also said the law likely violates the First Amendment.
Cavanaugh said he was appalled by the specter of child exploitation “as any normal person would be.”
“But that’s not why we’re here,” he added. “It is not my job to write the laws; I have to interpret them.”
State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle, who sponsored the bill in the state Legislature, said she would continue to seek to have the law validated on appeal.
“We felt New Jersey could be the leader in eradicating the sexual exploitation of children,” she said. “We need to continue so we can hold these people responsible for exploiting children.”
Dallas-based Backpage.com argued that New Jersey’s law is overly broad and would have a chilling effect on free speech. In court filings, the company has asserted that the law’s language could apply to any website that allows third parties to post content, be it user comments, reviews, chats or discussion forums.
The lawsuit also notes that federal courts in Tennessee and Washington have issued permanent injunctions against similar laws in those states.
“No matter how compelling the state’s interest, they must pursue that interest with the least restrictive means, and this is not it,” James Grant, an attorney representing the company, told Cavanaugh on Friday.
Arguing for the state, Assistant Attorney General Stuart Feinblatt called New Jersey’s law “the only pragmatic way we believe will stanch the widespread exploitation of children.” He said its language “deals with the reality of the situation” and doesn’t extend to other, legal activities.
The U.S. Department of State estimates 27 million children and adults around the world are victims of trafficking, whether through forced labor or sexual exploitation, according to Penny Venetis, an attorney with Rutgers-Newark’s constitutional litigation clinic.
Venetis filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of dozens of public interest groups that support New Jersey’s law. She said companies like Backpage.com contribute to the problem.
“Our position is that they knowingly profit from the raping and exploitation of children,” she said.
Elizabeth McDougall, general counsel for Backpage.com, called the drafting of the law “politically a good sound bite” but called it “a waste of time and resources” given that similar laws had been struck down in other states.
She said the company vets prospective ads electronically with a filter that uses 35,000 words or phrases that could refer to minors, as well as manually. She said the company also forwards hundreds of ads per month to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.