Underage Escort Ads Target of New WA Law

By Edward Tan, JD on April 03, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A new escort ad law in Washington seeks to reduce the number of underage escorts by imposing criminal penalties.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the bill into Washington state law last week. The law subjects classified advertising companies to criminal punishment if they allow sex-related ads featuring minors to be published, The Seattle Times reports.

The law requires both print and online publications to make a good-faith effort to verify the ages of the people advertised in sex-related ads. But some Washington classified companies don't like the new law.

Backpage.com is one such company. Its parent company, Village Voice Media, owns Seattle Weekly, along with 13 other alternative weekly newspapers.

Currently, Seattle Weekly requires proof of identification for any sex-related classified ads printed in it. Backpage.com does not.

The new Washington law requirements run counter to the 1996 federal Communication Decency Act (CDA), says Steve Suskin, a lawyer for Village Voice Media.

The CDA gives broad protections to any speech made by third parties on websites. In essence, it allows sites to not be held liable for any of the statements or information posted by users.

The new state law directly contradicts the CDA, Suskin says.

So far there are no reports of any challenges to the new law. But Village Voice Media has promised to contest it.

The company may have a good chance of winning, too.

Under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, when any laws passed by a state are in direct conflict with a federal law, the state law will be held invalid. This is called "federal preemption."

As for the new Washington law, a court could very well find that federal preemption applies and invalidate the state law.

That's because both laws deal with whether a website's owner can be criminally prosecuted for statements made by others on their website. The CDA says they can't. The Washington law says they can.

Only time will tell who'll win. For now, those looking to advertise underage escorts in Washington had better be prepared to comply with the new escort ad law.

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