Washington State Abandons Defense Of Unconstitutional Sex Trafficking Law

Last February, the Washington legislature enacted a law prohibiting anyone from “advertising [the] commercial sexual abuse of a minor if he or she knowingly publishes, disseminates, or displays, or causes directly or indirectly, to be published, disseminated, or displayed, any advertisement for a commercial sex act.” The goal of this law — preventing child sex trafficking — is laudable, but the law’s wording was also sufficiently ambiguous that it could have endangered common social media websites or Craigslist-style classified ad pages. Indeed, the Internet Archive, a website that facilitates research by maintaining public archives of the World Wide Web, supported a lawsuit challenging the law because it feared that it could face felony charges for providing comprehensive web archives that would include some forbidden web advertisements. Last July, a federal judge temporarily blocked the law.

In the wake of these challenges, the state of Washington now admits that the law cannot be defended in federal court:

The state of Washington has abandoned its defense of legislation passed earlier this year that could have exposed website operators to legal liability if they inadvertently hosted advertisements for child prostitution. . . . . The legislation, known as SB 6251, was designed to fight the sexual exploitation of minors. But critics said language criminalizing the dissemination of advertisements which include “an explicit or implicit offer for a commercial sex act to occur in Washington” went too far. The Internet Archive worried that such ads could effectively make its archives of the Web illegal, since some websites included in the archives could fit the law’s definition of material soliciting prostitution. So it joined a lawsuit by, which was also challenging the law. . . .

And that’s not all. The state will pay $200,000 to defray the plaintiffs’ legal expenses, and Washington state attorney general Rob McKenna will “work with the Washington State Legislature to repeal the current unconstitutional version” of the law.