Judge Says South Carolina Can't Charge Craigslist

COLUMBIA, S.C. – A South Carolina U.S. District Court judge has issued a temporary restraining order blocking state Attorney General Henry McMaster from following through on his agenda to pursue criminal charges against ad site Craigslist..

CNN reports that Friday, Judge C. Weston Houck said the court must first rule on the merits of Craigslist’s claims in its lawsuit filed against McMaster and his office. For now, the AG may not initiate any investigation with intent to prosecute the ad site for allegedly knowingly promoting prostitution through its ad postings.

Under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a website cannot be held criminally or civilly liable for the postings of its users. To that effect Craigslist appears protected under the act's safe harbor law, but McMaster's office contends there are limits to such protection. 

According to news service UPI, the restraining order does not mean a victory for Craigslist in its lawsuit, which seeks declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, and argues McMaster's actions violated free speech rights along with the CDA.

Writing on the Craigslist blog, CEO Jim Buckmaster noted an AP report that claimed McMaster has not prosecuted even one prostitution case in his seven years as South Carolina attorney general, and also, has not objected to local newspapers running adult service ads.

Buckmaster quoted Ann Bartow, a professor of Internet law at the University of South Carolina School of Law, who suggested McMaster's targeting of Craigslist was a political move.

“Why Craigslist?” Bartow asked. "Newspapers run the same ads, but they have people locally who would stand up for them, and he didn’t want to alienate the newspapers that would be reporting on his campaign.”

In a follow-up post he called "Turning a Blind Eye," Buckmaster attacked politicians and mainstream journalists for ignoring blatant prostitution ads found in other media classifieds, some quite graphic visually, with explicit language. He went on to berate Village Voice Media's Backpage.com -- a Craigslist competitor -- naming specific posting that appear to have since been removed from various Backpage Web pages for Chicago, New York, Dallas and other cities.

"It’s worth noting that these ads’ titles alone contain more explicit content than you will find in all Craigslist adult service ads combined," Buckmaster wrote on the blog.

"Could the blessing of politicos on voluminous pornographic sex-for-money ads in journalistic media have anything to do with the need for positive coverage and campaign endorsements from said media?,"he asked. "As for journalists, is it possible that criticizing craigslist is more career-friendly than taking their own employers (or publishing peers) to task?"

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Chicago Tribune reported Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and five other AGS in Maryland, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Mississippi and New Hampshire issued a formal request to Craiglist, asking the site provide more details on the screening process for its "adult "section, which has replaced "erotic services."  Craigslist has said the new section would be monitored by its staff, posting by posting.

For more on Craigslist under fire by officials, please see the AVN.com news archives.