Twenty-one States Inadvertently Tell The DC Circuit That The Plaintiffs Challenging FOSTA Have A Case
from the with-amici-like-these dept
The constitutional challenge to FOSTA chugs on. A few weeks ago the DOJ filed its opposition brief to defend FOSTA, and then last week several amicus briefs were filed intending to support the government’s side. But in reading the one filed by twenty-one state attorneys general, it seems that’s not what it did.
The important thing to remember about this appeal is that the question before the appeals court isn’t really about the constitutionality of FOSTA itself. What’s being appealed is the case having been dismissed for lack of standing by the plaintiffs. The district court never directly ruled on the constitutionality of the law; it only ruled that these plaintiffs had no right to complain about it to the courts. According to the district court these plaintiffs weren’t being hurt, or likely to be hurt, by FOSTA, and so it dismissed their case. What the parties are fighting about now is whether this assessment by the district court was right.
For the plaintiffs it makes sense to keep pressing the constitutional issue because shining a light on the unconstitutionality of the law illuminates the injury the unconstitutionality has already caused and will continue to cause. But the defense has a different and much simpler job. All the DOJ has to do to defend FOSTA is say is, “The district court was right. These people were not hurt by FOSTA and will not be hurt by FOSTA, so keep this case dismissed.” If the appeals court agrees that there has been no injury, and that there is unlikely to be any injury, then the case remains dismissed and this constitutional challenge goes away.
And so that’s what the DOJ’s brief basically does: parrot the district court’s decision that there is nothing to see here. The DOJ spent its pages arguing that there has been no injury, nor is there the likelihood of any injury, because FOSTA could not possibly empower prosecutors to reach the plaintiffs.
As the district court correctly concluded, plaintiffs? conduct is not ?proscribed by [the] statute,? and plaintiffs face no ?credible threat of prosecution thereunder.? [DOJ brief p. 10]
It’s an unfortunate position for the government to take, but it’s not an irrational litigation strategy. The only thing the DOJ needs to do here is assure the court that the plaintiffs have nothing to worry about.
But that’s exactly what the amicus brief by the twenty-one state attorney generals does not do. Although it is intended to support the DOJ’s defense of the statute, rather than supporting the DOJ’s argument that the plaintiffs’ complaints are much ado about nothing, their brief instead reads as a bright flashing neon sign warning the court that there is plenty of reason for them to be worried. Because, in contrast to the DOJ’s arguments about what FOSTA does not do, this brief reads as a paean to everything FOSTA is going to let the states do, including to people just like the plaintiffs.
First, it reminds the court just how much FOSTA empowers states like them.
FOSTA makes explicit that: (1) federal law no longer can be said to provide legal protection for websites that unlawfully facilitate sex trafficking; and (2) States may now pursue state-law prosecutions based on conduct that would also violate FOSTA. 47 U.S.C. ? 230(e)(5). [I]f a State criminalizes the same conduct FOSTA criminalizes, the State need not wait for the Department of Justice to prosecute traffickers operating in the State; the State?s prosecutors may do so themselves. FOSTA also authorizes a state attorney general, on behalf of the residents of his or her State, to initiate civil actions against those who violate 18 U.S.C. ? 1591 (?Sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud, or coercion?) if there is ?reason to believe? that an interest of the State?s residents has been or is threatened or adversely affected by the violators. [state AG brief p. 9-10]
It also tells the court just how keen they are to be so empowered. Although the brief is only 10 pages, more than five of them are devoted to a gushing inventory of all these states’ policy agendas against sex trafficking. [state AG brief p. 3-9]
It further implies that the only reason there have not been more prosecutions predicated on FOSTA to date is because the states first need to pass some laws to enable these prosecutions, and that takes some time.
Bills to accomplish this are currently pending before the Texas Legislature. Tex. H.B. 15, 86th Leg., R.S. (2019) and Tex. S.B. 20, 86th Leg., R.S. (2019). [state AG brief fn. 3]
In other words, this brief undermines all the arguments that the unconstitutional effects of FOSTA are hypothetical by instead essentially pointing out to the court that they just haven’t accrued yet. FOSTA empowers states to act, they are keen to act, and they just need a little more time until they will be able to act.
Which perhaps wouldn’t be so much of a problem if states were carefully focused on actual instances of sex trafficking. But the amici themselves are proof that such restraint is unlikely.
In particular, note that one of the states on the brief is Florida. Now think back to just a few months ago when Florida prosecutors stole attention away from the Super Bowl with their announcement that they had broken up a “sex trafficking” operation in Palm Beach? which then turned out not to be a sex-trafficking operation after all.
It was sex work prosecutors had discovered, sure, but at least three of the plaintiffs challenging FOSTA are advocates for sex workers, in no small part because they believe that advocating for sex workers helps keep them safe and out of the clutches of sex traffickers. They sued because they are worried about how the vague language of FOSTA can be used against their advocacy.
A big part of the DOJ’s argument is that no one could possibly misconstrue their speech on sex work with the speech relating to sex trafficking and end up using FOSTA to target them.
[Plaintiffs’] activity is wholly outside of FOSTA?s ambit. It is not proscribed by ? 2421A, which prohibits owning, managing, or operating an interactive computer service with the intent to promote or facilitate specific instances of illegal prostitution. Nor is it prohibited by ? 1591, the pre-existing federal criminal prohibition on sex trafficking. And because FOSTA amended Section 230 immunity only to permit civil claims under ? 1595 ?if the conduct underlying the claim constitutes a violation of section 1591,? and State criminal prosecutions ?if the conduct underlying the charge would constitute a violation of section 1591? or ? 2421A, see 47 U.S.C. ? 230(e)(5), plaintiffs do not face a reasonable fear of prosecution as a result of those amendments, either. [DOJ brief p. 15-16]
Yet here before the court is an amicus who not long ago got sex work and sex trafficking very badly mixed up. And here it is announcing to the court how excited it is that FOSTA has given them the power to get them mixed up in a way that will affect even more people, including those situated exactly like the plaintiffs.
The DOJ wants the court to believe that any injury the plaintiffs complain about is entirely speculative.
To the extent plaintiffs are concerned that a State or private litigant might attempt to bring a lawsuit against them in the future notwithstanding the text of FOSTA, that concern cannot provide plaintiffs with standing to sue the federal government here. [?T]hat fear is entirely conjectural, and ?require[s] guesswork as to how independent decisionmakers will exercise their judgment.? [DOJ brief p. 29-30]
But thanks to amici, we know exactly how these independent decision makers will exercise their judgment: badly. Thus, despite the DOJ’s best efforts to convince the court of the plaintiffs’ lack of standing, the state AG’s amicus brief has done the exact opposite.
In a way the amicus brief is just like FOSTA itself: not understanding the job that needed to be done but rushing in with legal guns blazing anyway. And just like FOSTA, this ill-tailored legal response has caused all sorts of collateral damage that just makes the problem to be solved worse.