SHOULD A SHERIFF STOP PEOPLE FROM BEING BAD ON THE INTERNET?

A federal judge in Chicago has blasted the local Sheriff’s efforts to shut down internet classifieds site backpage.com claiming that it promotes prostitution and sex trafficking. This is not the first time a Sheriff has used the power of office to try and forcibly make businesses stop people from “being bad on the internet.”

A bit of background is in order:

The Sheriff for Cook County, Illinois got mad at the online classifieds site backpage.com because prostitutes and other people he saw as ne’er-do-wells were allegedly using the site to arrange their transactions. In response, the Sheriff concocted a plan to strangle the site’s source of revenue – credit cards. The Sheriff sent the credit card companies threatening letters, telling them to stop doing business with backpage.combecause they were a “sex trafficking industry profiteer.” Backpage.com makes money by hosting ads on its site, and the advertisers pay backpage.com via – you guessed it – credit cards. The credit cards pulled out based on the threatening letter.

In response backpage.com filed a federal lawsuit against the Sheriff, seeking a temporary restraining order (i.e. an order from a judge telling one party to stop doing something) to prevent the Sheriff from contacting credit card companies and telling them to stop doing business with backpage.com. The judge granted their request, and in his written order took aim at the Sheriff’s tenuous hold on logic:

Sheriff Dart has made no argument, and has provided no evidence, that prostitution, trafficking, and sexual exploitation of minors will be reduced significantly reduced by Backpage’s demise; indeed, it appears that an oft-used tool for identifying lawbreakers (by Dart and other law enforcement agencies) will be lost if Backpage were to fold.

What the judge is saying is that not only can the Sheriff not show any evidence that shutting down backpage.com would reduce crime, the Sheriff should be using backpage.com himself to catch the people he says use it to break the law. Kudos to the judge for seeing through the Sheriff’s logical fallacy.

Law enforcers or crusaders?

As I mentioned above, this is not the first time a Sheriff has tried to use the power of office to try and stop people from “being bad on the internet.” A recent example: in Florida, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd had two children arrested because they were mean to another child, Rebecca Sedwick, on the internet, and the other child ended up committing suicide.

The case against the mean girls came unraveled when prosecutors bucked the Sheriff’s wishes and refused to file charges. There was no real evidence that the two children arrested actually caused Sedwick’s suicide. But Judd, like all crusaders, remains undeterred:

Sheriff Judd said he had no regrets over his handling of the case, adding that the arrests brought attention to the growing threat of cyberbullying and its corrosive effects on children. The two girls, he said, wound up getting the help they needed.

“We’ve raised awareness and we’ve helped kids,” the sheriff told reporters, adding, “I’m glad we did what we did, and we would do it again tomorrow.”

So by Judd’s logic, it’s ok to abuse the criminal justice system, arrest children and accuse them of felony charges, because it raises awareness that being mean on the internet is bad. One of the children has sued Judd in federal court over the ordeal.

When the police decide the laws, we all lose:

Sheriffs and police officers are supposed to fill a very narrow role: law enforcement. The legislature (elected by the citizens) writes the laws, the courts interpret them, and the Sheriff and police enforce them by investigating crimes and arresting people when they have probable cause to believe committed a crime. What Judd and the Chicago Sheriff are doing is overstepping their bounds. They are expanding their role in order to create laws against things they think are bad, interpreting these laws by deciding who to go after, and then enforcing these made-up laws by arresting children or threatening companies. You could be next on their list for looking at porn, being mean to other people, thinking bad thoughts, or doing or saying something they find offensive.

This needs to stop. But with activist law-ignoring Sheriffs like this it stops either through a deluge of federal lawsuits from them violating people’s civil rights, or through voting for someone else. I hope it’s the latter.