Backpage.com – the classified services site that has been taken to the cleaners by the authorities – have won a restraining order against Sheriff Thomas Dart, the man who’s very high-profile campaign has almost destroyed the site as well as costing hundreds of sex workers a big portion of their livelihoods.
Sheriff Dart’s vendetta gained huge momentum recently after both VISA and Mastercard rescinded use of their services on the site. Dart had waged his war on Backpage through an uneven and unscientific campaign of fear, blaming Backpage and the sex workers who plied their trade through the site for any and all of the world’s ills, particularly human trafficking and child abuse. Dart’s evidence remained spurious at best.
However, the issue has undergone a major shift after a judge ordered Dart to cease and desist his campaign. The ruling comes after Backpage sued Dart in the immediate aftermath of VISA and Mastercard’s refusal of services.
Judge John Tharp brought his gavel down after hearing evidence from both sides at a hearing taken late last week. Backpage attorney Robert Corn-Revere argued that Dart’s methods were unsound, given that he had effectively threatened the financial giants with legal action if they did not comply with his demands.
Dart had also written to the U.S. Postal Service and requested that they also do their part to disrupt Backpage’s daily operation. Dart’s abuse of power throughout his worryingly frantic campaign has been frightening.
Judge Tharp did not mince his words when passing judgement over Dart and his campaign.
“Dart’s informal lobbying of the credit card companies violated the First Amendment by imposing an informal prior restraint on the advertisements hosted by Backpage.com” he said while ordering that Dart pull the reins back on his campaign of hate for the time being. While Backpage can claim a minor victory, it merely stems the tide while their business and that of the affected individuals suffers immensely. Further court battles are expected in the near future.
Liz McDougall, Backpage’s general counsel, said in an statement that the ruling “is an important reaffirmation of the critical role of the Internet in free speech and the continued evolution of e-commerce. It serves also as an emphatic reminder that government officials cannot undertake to destroy websites even when they disagree with hosted speech.”