(Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Monday ordered an injunction blocking the Cook County, Illinois, sheriff from pursuing any effort to stop credit card companies from handling transactions for Backpage.com, a classified ad website that the sheriff said promotes sex trafficking.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said Sheriff Thomas Dart, whose jurisdiction includes Chicago, violated Backpage’s First Amendment free speech rights by demanding that companies such as MasterCard Inc and Visa Inc ban the use of their cards to buy ads on the website.
Writing for a three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Richard Posner said Dart’s “official bullying” and “campaign of suffocation” amounted to censorship, preventing even transactions for ads touting “indisputably legal” activities from being processed.
“As a citizen or father, or in any other private capacity, Sheriff Dart can denounce Backpage to his heart’s content. He is in good company; many people are disturbed or revolted by the kind of sex ads found on Backpage’s website,” Posner wrote.
But as sheriff of a county with more than 5.2 million people, Dart cannot make “dire threats,” including of possible prosecution, in a campaign “to crush Backpage’s adult section – crush Backpage, period, it seems,” the judge added.
Visa and MasterCard had cut ties to Backpage.com at Dart’s urging five months ago, joining American Express Co.
The injunction bars Dart from coercing or threatening sanctions for doing business with Backpage.com, while the company pursues its lawsuit to stop his campaign.
In August, U.S. District Judge John Tharp rejected Backpage.com’s bid for a preliminary injunction.
Posner said that was a mistake because Backpage.com would probably succeed on the merits, and suffered “irreparable injury” from its loss of First Amendment freedoms.
Sophia Ansari, press secretary for Dart’s office, said the office was disappointed with Monday’s decision, and looks forward to continuing the litigation and “doing all we can to protect victims from the horrors of human trafficking.”
The office has said it has made more than 800 arrests since 2009 connected to Backpage.com ads.
Robert Corn-Revere, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine representing Backpage.com, welcomed Monday’s decision.
“It reaffirms that the rule of law governs local law enforcement officials, no matter how convinced they are of their own rightness,” he said in an interview. “The sheriff’s naked threat of government power did not fool the court.”
MasterCard spokesman Seth Eisen said the decision does not affect Backpage.com’s status in accepting MasterCard cards. American Express and Visa had no immediate comment.
The case is Backpage.com LLC v. Dart, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-3047.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Jonathan Oatis)