Craigslist 'Censorship' Sparks Free Speech Debate

The decision by popular online marketplace Craigslist to remove the Adult Services section sparks a debate as to whether the company's free speech rights are under fire.

Following pressure from state governments and conservative and religious groups, the popular online marketplace Craigslist placed a black "Censored" bar over the section previously labeled "Adult Services," sparking a heated debated online and in the media as to whether the company's free speech rights are being infringed upon. However, the decision is unlikely to deter the more enterprising Craigslist users. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Executive Director of Prostitution Research & Education Melissa Farley remarked, "The pimps are in the process of moving over" to the site's "Casual Encounters" section.

The section was removed after attorneys general from 17 states sent Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster a scathing letter demanding the site remove the Adult Services market immediately and asked the company to consider "the suffering of the women and children who will continue to be victimized, in the market and trafficking provided by Craigslist." The letter goes on to charge the company as playing a variant of the "blame the victim" game. "It disregards, perhaps intentionally, two fundamental facts. First, Craigslist is the only player in the sex industry who is in a position to stop these ads before they are published," the letter accuses. "Second, once an ad goes live on the site, it is a virtual certainty that someone will be victimized."

The debate seems likely to drag on: The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and a coalition of public interest groups and law professors have asked a California appeals court to protect Craigslist from a lawsuit that could spur Websites to be less helpful in responding to complaints about user behavior. Joining the EFF in the letter to the court is the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Citizen Media Law Project, and law professors Eric Goldman, David S. Levine, David G. Post and Jason Schultz. Separately, a group of Internet companies, including Yahoo, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google and LinkedIn, filed another amicus brief in support of Craigslist.

According to a survey from the social media news site Mashable, two-thirds of respondents said they found the Adult Services section objectionable because they felt it allowed Craigslist to profit, if indirectly, from prostitution. "Of those who thought the site and the adult sections should remain uncensored, almost half of you (46.15 percent) felt the censorship was unwarranted because prostitution should not be illegal in the first place," wrote Mashable contributor Jolie O'Dell. "These broad-minded folks comprise almost 33 percent of everyone who voted in the poll."

Buckmaster, who also frequently posts on Craigslist's blog, wrote in an Aug. 18 blog entry that the company had implemented manual screening of adult services ads in May of 2009. He said since that time, before being posted each individual ad is reviewed by an attorney licensed to practice law in the United States, trained to enforce Craigslist's posting guidelines, which he claimed are stricter than those typically used by yellow pages or newspapers. Those attorneys rejected more than 700,000 ads in the year following implementation of manual screening for falling short of the company guidelines, Buckmaster said.

"Craigslist is committed to being socially responsible, and when it comes to adult services ads, that includes aggressively combating violent crime and human rights violations, including human trafficking and the exploitation of minors," wrote Buckmaster in the same blog post. "We are working intensively as I write this with experts and thought leaders at leading non-profits and among law enforcement on further substantive measures we can take."