Feds Ignore First Amendment, Supreme Court Precedent In Seizing Domain Of Social Network For Sex Workers

by Mike Masnick
Jul. 02, 2014

The disturbing trend of the federal government seizing domain names without regard to the First Amendment continues. The FBI, along with the IRS, apparently seized a number of websites associated with MyRedbook.com, and arrested the operator of the site. The FBI notes that the site, which was a social network and resource for sex workers, included advertising that "facilitated prostitution." It also accused the site of money laundering.

However, as the EFF is noting beyond the question of whether or not the FBI should even be in the business of targeting sex workers, there are serious First Amendment questions around such a seizure of a website:
MyRedBook and its companion sites served a large and diverse community of sex workers. The sites functioned as social media platforms, with discussion boards for users in topics from politics to financial tips. It also served as a resource guide with information ranging from explanations of the law as it pertains to sex work to health information. For archived versions of the forums sex workers no longer have access to, click here.

These sites were essential tools for First Amendment protected speech and association--especially important for a community that values its privacy for a variety of legitimate reasons. This platform has been pulled out from under the feet of this community.
As we've discussed many times in the past with regards to the government's seizure of websites, these appear to be classic cases of prior restraint -- the effective equivalent of the government rushing in and smashing the printing presses for a publication. In Ft. Wayne Books. v. Indiana, the Supreme Court is quite clear that the government can't just go in and seize protected speech based on related illegal activity, especially without first holding an adversarial hearing to explore the First Amendment implications. The court noted:
...our cases firmly hold that mere probable cause to believe a legal violation has transpired is not adequate to remove books or films from circulation.
The court is quite clear that the only purpose for which seizure is appropriate in such circumstances is to procure a single copy for the sake of evidence, but not to remove protected speech entirely from circulation. While that case was about RICO claims of racketeering, and this case is about money laundering and prostitution, the same principles should and do apply:
At least where the RICO violation claimed is a pattern of racketeering that can be established only by rebutting the presumption that expressive materials are protected by the First Amendment, ... that presumption is not rebutted until the claimed justification for seizing books or other publications is properly established in an adversary proceeding. Here, literally thousands of books and films were carried away and taken out of circulation by the pretrial order.... Yet it remained to be proved whether the seizure was actually warranted under the Indiana CRRA and RICO statutes. If we are to maintain the regard for First Amendment values expressed in our prior decisions dealing with interrupting the flow of expressive materials, the judgment of the Indiana Court must be reversed.
I can't see any legitimate way that the DOJ/FBI can defend this seizure under such a standard. It clearly took down significant aspects of protected speech based merely on the assertion of related criminal activity, without any sort of adversarial hearing. The First Amendment, and the specific statements of the Supreme Court in this case, clearly forbid such actions.

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