The First Amendment Lawyer’s Association (FALA) is hoping to end the California Attorney General’s crusade against Backpage. The website has already ceded ground in the face of constant criticism, investigations, and legal threats. Earlier this year, it shuttered its adult ads rather than continue to bleed money and time defending itself against bogus prosecutions and investigations.
Former California Attorney General Kamala Harris — who blew off court decisions against her office to continue to prosecute Backpage — has now moved on to the US Senate. But just because Harris has moved on doesn’t mean the local AG’s office isn’t going to continue with Harris’ unfinished business.
The letter from FALA is covered (but not published[?]) by Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason.
On March 14, FALA—a nonprofit membership association launched in the late ’60s that has boasted some of the country’s top constitutional lawyers—sent a letter to Becerra condemning “the abusive prosecution of individuals associated with the online classified advertising website Backpage.com, and also the use of expansive search warrants seeking vast amounts of constitutionally-protected material, including personally identifiable information about all of the website’s users.” In the letter, FALA President Marc Randazza says he can identify “no theory under the First Amendment that would countenance such an abusive use of prosecutorial discretion or such a dragnet demand for information.”
The letter points out the flaws of the AG’s case against Backpage. Not only does it do damage to protected speech, but it ignores Section 230 protections in the ongoing quest to punish the site’s owners for the actions of its users.
On top of that, there’s the overbreadth of prosecutors’ demands for info from the site. Not content to steamroll the First Amendment, the office also made a mockery of the term “investigation.” From the letter:
We have learned that a subpoena was served on Backpage.com that calls for the production of massive amounts of information for a several-year period, including copies of all advertisements posted (in all content categories), all billing records, the identities of all of the website’s users and their account histories, all internal communications, and even the source code for the operation of the website.
As FALA points out, this sounds a whole lot like the colonial-era “general warrants” — the same ones our government sought to eliminate with the Fourth Amendment.
On the plus side, the new California Attorney General has pledged to protect civil liberties. FALA’s hoping that pledge extends to Kamala Harris’ unfinished business.