, LLC v. Dart

Decision Date30 November 2015
Docket NumberNo. 15–3047.,15–3047.
Parties BACKPAGE.COM, LLC, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. Thomas J. DART, Sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, Defendant–Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

James C. Grant, Attorney, Davis Wright Tremaine, Seattle, WA, Robert Corn–Revere, Attorney, Ronald G. London, Attorney, Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP, Washington, DC, for PlaintiffAppellant.

Jill V. Ferrara, Attorney, Daniel Francis Gallagher, Attorney, Office of the Cook County State's Attorney, Hariklia Karis, Attorney, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Chicago, IL, for DefendantAppellee.

Before POSNER, RIPPLE, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

POSNER, Circuit Judge. (we'll call it just Backpage) provides an online forum for classified ads sectioned by subject matter, such as rentals, real estate, jobs, and, among still others, "adult." The adult section in turn is subdivided into escorts, body rubs, strippers and strip clubs, dom[ination] and fetish, ts (transsexual escorts), male escorts, phone [sex], and adult jobs (jobs related to services offered in other adult categories, whether or not the jobs are sexual—not every employee of a brothel is a sex worker).

The Sheriff of Cook County, Tom Dart, has embarked on a campaign intended to crush Backpage's adult section—crush Backpage, period, it seems—by demanding that firms such as Visa and MasterCard prohibit the use of their credit cards to purchase any ads on Backpage, since the ads might be for illegal sex-related products or services, such as prostitution. Visa and MasterCard bowed to pressure from Sheriff Dart and others by refusing to process transactions in which their credit cards are used to purchase any ads on Backpage, even those that advertise indisputably legal activities.

Backpage sought a preliminary injunction to stop the sheriff's campaign of starving the company by pressuring credit card companies to cut ties with its website. The district court denied the injunction and Backpage has appealed, contending that the sheriff is curtailing freedom of expression, in violation of the First Amendment. The sheriff ripostes that he's not using his office to organize a boycott of Backpage by threatening legal sanctions, but merely expressing his disgust with Backpage's sex-related ads and the illegal activities that they facilitate. That's not true, and while he has a First Amendment right to express his views about Backpage, a public official who tries to shut down an avenue of expression of ideas and opinions through "actual or threatened imposition of government power or sanction" is violating the First Amendment. American Family Association, Inc. v. City & County of San Francisco, 277 F.3d 1114, 1125 (9th Cir.2002).

The difference between government expression and in intimidation—the first permitted by the First Amendment, the latter forbidden by it—is well explained in Okwedy v. Molinari, 333 F.3d 339, 344 (2d Cir.2003) (per curiam): "the fact that a public-official defendant lacks direct regulatory or decisionmaking authority over a plaintiff, or a third party that is publishing or otherwise disseminating the plaintiff's message, is not necessarily dispositive.... What matters is the distinction between attempts to convince and attempts to coerce. A public-official defendant who threatens to employ coercive state power to stifle protected speech violates a plaintiff's First Amendment rights, regardless of whether the threatened punishment comes in the form of the use (or, misuse) of the defendant's direct regulatory or decisionmaking authority over the plaintiff, or in some less-direct form." Notice that such a threat is actionable and thus can be enjoined even if it turns out to be empty—the victim ignores it, and the threatener folds his tent. But the victims in this case yielded to the threat.

It may seem odd, though it certainly does not exonerate Sheriff Dart, that he should be going after the credit-card companies rather than after Backpage itself. If Backpage is violating the law by accepting classified ads for "adult" services, which may include illegal services, such as prostitution, you'd think the sheriff would sue Backpage. But no; he tried that against Craigslist, a classified-ads website that had an adult section similar to Backpage's, and he failed. District Judge Grady, in a thorough opinion, threw out the sheriff's case. Dart v. Craigslist, Inc., 665 F.Supp.2d 961 (N.D.Ill.2009). Craigslist, perhaps anticipating Dart's campaign against Backpage, shut down its adult section the following year, though adult ads can be found elsewhere on its website.

The suit against Craigslist having failed, the sheriff decided to proceed against Backpage not by litigation but instead by suffocation, depriving the company of ad revenues by scaring off its payments-service providers. The analogy is to killing a person by cutting off his oxygen supply rather than by shooting him. Still, if all the sheriff were doing to crush Backpage was done in his capacity as a private citizen rather than as a government official (and a powerful government official at that), he would be within his rights. But he is using the power of his office to threaten legal sanctions against the credit-card companies for facilitating future speech, and by doing so he is violating the First Amendment unless there is no constitutionally protected speech in the ads on Backpage's website—and no one is claiming that. The First Amendment forbids a public official to attempt to suppress the protected speech of private persons by threatening that legal sanctions will at his urging be imposed unless there is compliance with his demands. E.g., Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan, 372 U.S. 58, 64–72, 83 S.Ct. 631, 9 L.Ed.2d 584 (1963) ; Okwedy v. Molinari, supra, 333 F.3d at 342–44 ; American Family Association, Inc. v. City & County of San Francisco, supra, 277 F.3d at 1125.

Central to Backpage's case is a letter of June 29 of this year that Sheriff Dart sent both to MasterCard's CEO and Board of Directors and to the corresponding personnel of Visa. The letter is on stationery captioned "Office of the Sheriff," and begins: "As the Sheriff of Cook County, a father and a caring citizen, I write to request that your institution immediately cease and desist from allowing your credit cards to be used to place ads on websites like" Notice that he is sheriff first, father and citizen second; notice his use of the legal term "cease and desist"; notice that he calls MasterCard "your institution," implying that the same letter is going to other "institutions"—namely other credit card companies—in other words that he is organizing a boycott. And notice that he doesn't demand that "your institution" refuse to allow "your credit cards" to be used to pay just for ads on Backpage's website that promote illegal products or services—he demands that "your institution" cease and desist from placing any ads "on websites like" (and a fortiori on Backpage's own website) even though "adult" ads are only one of eleven types of classified ad published on the website. Visa and MasterCard got the message and cut all their ties to Backpage.

The letter goes on to state that "it has become increasingly indefensible for any corporation to continue to willfully play a central role in an industry that reaps its cash from the victimization of women and girls across the world." The implication, given whom the letter is addressed to, is that credit card companies, such as MasterCard and Visa, "willfully play a central role" in a criminal activity (emphases added)—so they had better stop! Indeed, the letter goes on to say, those companies are "key" to the "growth" of sex trafficking in the United States. (Actually, as explained in an amicus curiae brief filed by the Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, and DKT Liberty Project, citing voluminous governmental and academic studies, there are no reliable statistics on which Sheriff Dart could base a judgment that sex trafficking has been increasing in the United States.) He is intimating that two of the world's largest credit card companies may be criminal accomplices.

"Financial institutions," the letter continues, "have the legal duty to file ‘Suspicious Activity Reports' to authorities in cases of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors." The letter cites the federal money-laundering statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1956, thereby intimating that the credit card companies could be prosecuted for processing payments made by purchasers of the ads on Backpage that promote unlawful sexual activity, such as prostitution. And "make no mistake," the letter thunders: "Your [credit] cards have and will continue to be used to buy ads that sell children for sex on sites like The use of credit cards in this violent industry implies an undeserved credibility and sense of normalcy to such illicit transactions and only serves to increase demand."

And here's the kicker: "Within the next week, please provide me with contact information for an individual within your organization that I can work with [harass, pester] on this issue." The "I" is Sheriff Dart, not private citizen Dart—the letter was signed by "Thomas Dart, Cook County Sheriff." And the letter was not merely an expression of Sheriff Dart's opinion. It was designed to compel the credit card companies to act by inserting Dart into the discussion; he'll be chatting them up. Further insight into the purpose and likely effect of such a letter is provided by a strategy memo written by a member of the sheriff's staff in advance of the letter. The memo suggested approaching the credit card companies (whether by phone, mail, email, or a visit in person) with threats in the form of "reminders" of "their own potential liability for allowing suspected illegal transactions to continue to take place" and their potential susceptibility to "money laundering prosecutions ... and/or hefty fines."...

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