Federal Court Tosses Constitutional Challenge Of FOSTA Brought By The Only Person The Feds Have Used FOSTA Against
from the badly-written,-randomly-enforced dept
Another constitutional challenge to FOSTA has failed, at least for the time being. The bill no one in law enforcement thought would actually help combat sex trafficking became law in early 2018. Since then, it has had zero effect on sex trafficking. And the impetus for its creation — the prosecution of Backpage execs — proceeded right along without the law in place.
FOSTA’s constitutionality has been challenged before. Last summer, the DC Court of Appeals revived a challenge after the plaintiffs were shot down at the district level. The Appeals Court said the law was littered with broad language that could be construed to target legal actions and behavior. It particularly had a problem with the terms “promote” and “facilitate” when used in conjunction with the law’s sex trafficking language.
Andrews has established an Article III injury-in-fact because she has alleged “an intention to engage in a course of conduct arguably affected with a constitutional interest, but proscribed by a statute, and there exists a credible threat of prosecution thereunder.” Her alleged conduct is “arguably affected with a constitutional interest,” because Andrews’ intended future conduct involves speech. Andrews operates a website that allows sex workers to share information. Her conduct is “arguably proscribed” by FOSTA because it is a crime to own, manage, or operate an “interactive computer service” with the intent to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person,” 18 U.S.C. § 2421A(a). FOSTA does not define “promote” or “facilitate,” nor does it specify what constitutes “prostitution,” a term undefined by federal law. Nor are these terms limited by a string of adjacent verbs (such as advertises, distributes, or solicits) that would convey “a transactional connotation” that might narrow the statute’s reach.
Not narrow enough, said the Appeals Court. Unfortunately, a federal court in Texas has come to the opposite conclusion about the same terms. (via Eric Goldman)
Its decision says the terms “promote” and “facilitate” are narrow enough to limit collateral damage to free speech and other protected activity. This challenge was filed by Wilhan Martono — the operator of CityXGuide, someone the DOJ finally used FOSTA against more than two years after it was signed into law.
The Texas court says the language is narrow, targeting only the facilitation of the prostituting of someone else. It does not target prostitution in general. That being said, sex workers who moved to CityXGuide after the shutdown of Backpage were nonetheless collateral damage, even if the law is supposedly in place to punish sex trafficking, not consensual sex work.
Here’s the court’s rationale for its Constitutional call:
In this case, “promotes” and “facilitates” are not two terms of many in a list. However, these two terms do not stand alone and without context. FOSTA specifically criminalizes owning, managing, or operating a computer service with the intent to promote the prostitution of another person or the intent to facilitate the prostitution of another person.
Most importantly, FOSTA connects both promotion and facilitation to the prostitution of another person. FOSTA does not obviously criminalize speech promoting prostitution generally. Instead, it prohibits an individual from committing certain acts with the intent to promote the prostitution of another person or the intent to facilitate the prostitution of another person. In this context the word “facilitates” is most clearly read as referring to conduct that aids or assists in the prostitution of another person. Thus, the use of the word “facilitates” in FOSTA does not appear substantially to restrict protected speech relative to the scope of the law’s plainly legitimate application.
Then the court goes further, equating the hosting of ads for sex work with the act of pimping.
FOSTA explicitly prohibits individuals from performing certain acts with the intent to promote prostitution of another person. It does not prohibit promoting prostitution more generally. In this context, “promotes” can most reasonably be interpreted as “to pander” or “pimp” as the Government suggests.
Even the government didn’t argue Martono was engaged in the act of pimping. There are no charges related to that. Instead, his prosecution rests on FOSTA and the “facilitate/promote” language that Martono (unsuccessfully) challenged.
On more logical footing, the court finds the terms “jurisdiction” and “prostitution” adequately defined. But it still says the broad terms that turn hosting into pimping don’t threaten protected speech or other legal activities. And since Martono’s indictment hinges on FOSTA, the indictment is also good and legal.
The Court holds here that FOSTA is neither unconstitutionally vague nor overbroad. Further, the Court determines that the indictment against Martono was sufficient. Because FOSTA is not unconstitutionally vague or overbroad and the indictment against Martono is sufficient, the Court denies Martono’s motion to dismiss.
Martono is sure to appeal this. But he’ll be doing it in a circuit that tends to sympathize with law enforcement and isn’t exactly known as the bastion of free speech. If it’s taken up by the Fifth Circuit, perhaps the Appeals Court will find the DC Appeals Court’s reasoning persuasive. Until then, FOSTA is still technically Constitutional. And it will continue to never be used to round up actual sex traffickers.