Craigslist sues South Carolina attorney general for declaratory relief

Philip H. Markoff, a medical student, was accused last month of murdering a masseuse who had advertised on Craigslist.  By Mark Garfinkel/The New York Times

(Philip H. Markoff, a medical student, was accused last month of murdering a masseuse who had advertised on Craigslist. By Mark Garfinkel/The New York Times)

By Ming Zhuang/Medill News Service

Craigslist, the Web’s largest classified advertising site, has filed suit against South Carolina’s attorney general, Henry McMaster, in federal court on Wednesday. Craigslist is seeking declaratory relief with respect to criminal prosecution that McMaster has repeatedly threatened against the company for aiding prostitution in the state.

McMaster called on the CEO of Craigslist two weeks ago to remove “the portions of the Internet site dedicated to South Carolina and its municipal regions which contain categories for and functions allowing for the solicitation of prostitution and the dissemination and posting of graphic pornographic material” within ten days.

“If those South Carolina portions of the site are not removed,” McMaster said, “the management of Craigslist may be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution.”

Under increasing pressure from officials in several states, Craigslist said last week it would close its “erotic services” category, which is criticized as a forum that fosters prostitution and other illegal activities.

Instead, the company has created an “adult services” category, which will be monitored and reviewed by employees to judge whether any postings appear to be for illegal activities or violate the site’s guidelines.

Jim Buckmaster, chief executive of Craigslist, said to The New York Times last week, posting to the new category would cost $10 and can be renewed for $5.

McMaster, as well as some other Craigslist’s detractors, didn’t think the site’s adjustments were adequate and by the end of last week, McMaster’s office said it had “no alternative but to move forward with criminal investigation and potential prosecution.”

Craigslist and some other legal experts agree that the company is protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, under which Craigslist was never at risk of incurring criminal liability for material posted by their users. The company also believes that the charges threatened represent an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech.

Buckmaster wrote in a blog on Wednesday:

If you read Mr. McMaster’s ultimatum carefully, you’ll note that the only way to definitively comply with it is to take down the Craigslist sites for South Carolina in their entirety. The open architecture of Craigslist, quintessential to the value it provides for users, simply does not allow for the absolute prevention of solicitation or pornography, with respect to any of its categories and functions.

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