Citing the First Amendment's guarantees of a free press, a federal judge in Newark blocked part of a faith-based coalition’s efforts to crack down on sex trafficking in New Jersey.
Ruling Aug. 9, U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Cavanaugh declared unconstitutional a provision of the state’s human trafficking law that would have outlawed advertising for “adult services” on the Internet.
The provision was contained in the Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act, passed last March with the support of the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking. The coalition, led by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, is composed of 50 civic and religious groups, including 17 Jewish organizations.
After hearing both sides in his chambers at the Frank Lautenberg Court House, Cavanaugh sided with attorneys for Backpage.com, a website owned by the Village Voice, which runs ads in its “adult services” section, widely seen as a euphemism for prostitution. The coalition contended in a court filing that the website “facilitates horrific instances of child sexual exploitation.”
Arguing for Backpage, attorney James Grant said the law “was enormously over-broad” in its scope. Charging that it violated the free press provisions of the Constitution, Grant urged the state “to take the least restrictive alternative available” to crack down on child prostitution.
“Once you ban one website,” he said, “then you will have to ban 400 more.”
In response, Deputy State Attorney General Stuart Feinblatt said, “No doubt the ads covered by the statute facilitate the sexual exploitation of children…. There is no question those ads provide the opportunity to connect people in illegal transactions.”
He called the law “the only pragmatic way we believe will stanch the widespread exploitation of children.”
Penny Venetis, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, represented the coalition in support of the law.
Speaking of “the constitutional rights of exploited victims,” Venetis said, “Human trafficking is slavery.” Children and adults forced into prostitution are subjected to diseases “and deplorable living conditions,” she added.
“I know the Constitution protects everyone,” the judge responded. But, he said, the law’s restrictions on advertising make it “likely unconstitutional.”
Similar provisions have been overturned in human trafficking laws passed by the states of Washington and Tennessee.
Cavanaugh said he was as disturbed by the sexual exploitation of children “as any normal person would be.” However, he said, he was “troubled no end that courts in two states have struck down similar laws…. States cannot regulate free speech,” suggesting that if he were to rule in favor of the statute, his decision would likely be overturned by a higher court.
‘Patina of legitimacy’
After leaving the courtroom, coalition members told NJ Jewish News the decision had good as well as bad results.
“I consider the fact that this came up in federal court an opportunity for shining the light on children being raped and the exploitation of human trafficking victims,” said Patricia Devine Harms, chair of the Junior Leagues of New Jersey’s public affairs committee.
“The fight is just beginning,” said Wanda Akin Brown of the International Justice Project, but the court case “gives an opportunity to reflect on the drafting of the statute, and hopefully, the legislature can go back to the drawing board and enact a statue that meets constitutional requirements to beat back the scourge of a terrible, terrible condition.”
The ruling was “a setback for all of the human trafficking victims,” Venetis told NJJN. While the statute may not have been “the most artfully drafted,” she said, “we think the court went way too far in discussing the constitutional claims. We think than this gives Backpage.com the patina of legitimacy when in reality, part of their business plan is to knowingly profit from the sale of human beings.”
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle (D-Dist. 37), author of the bill, told NJJN that “aside from feeling personally disappointed,” she is “hoping that we will appeal it.”
Elizabeth McDougall, general counsel for Backpage.com, did not respond to repeated inquiries from NJJN about the case. But she told the Associated Press that her company screens prospective ads with an electronic filter designed to weed out some 35,000 objectionable words or phrases.
McDougall also said the website forwards hundreds of prospective ads per month to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
CRC director Melanie Roth Gorelick called the hearing “a step forward” in publicizing what she called a “moral imperative.”
She pledged to “continue to work to deter human trafficking by raising public awareness and working with the tourism and travel industry — mainly NJ hotels — to ensure a commitment that they will not allow sex-trafficking in their establishments.”