ST. LOUIS — U.S. District Judge Patricia L. Cohen has denied an injunction requested by website operators that sought to derail an investigation launched by the state attorney general earlier this year. 

Backpage, a classified ad website, has faced allegations that its adult services subsection is used for prostitution and sex trafficking.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley launched an investigation in May seeking to uncover the site’s sales or advertisements of "commercial sexual conduct, other sexually oriented services, massage services, dating services and other merchandise" to determine if it had violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA).

Backpage and its CEO Carl Ferrer countered in July with a complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief saying Hawley's investigation was illegal because the Communications Decency Act "bars state law claims against internet websites and publishers arising from content created by a third party," the Nov. 28 ruling states. Backpage and Ferrer alleged the state violated the First and 14th Amendment rights of them and their users.

Hawley's argument for dismissal focused on a 1971 decision in Younger v. Harris, which would bar a federal court from considering a complaint such as Backpage's because the state court action: is ongoing; implicates important state interests, namely, enforcement of Missouri’s consumer-protection laws; and provides Backpage ample opportunity to raise its federal-law arguments in opposition to enforcement of the civil investigative demands (CID).

Among the demands sought by Hawley in May were "all documents concerning human trafficking, sex trafficking, human smuggling, prostitution, or the facilitation or investigation thereof, including but not limited to policies, manuals, staff training materials, memoranda, and guidelines."

Regarding Backpage's request to declare Hawley's efforts to investigate and prosecute under the MMPA, Cohen wrote that "state courts play a significant role in the investigation and prosecution of unlawful merchandising practices."

If a recipient of a CID fails to comply, an attorney general may petition for enforcement; and if the recipient fails to comply, it can be found in contempt, she wrote.

"AG Hawley filed the state-court action to enforce the CID pursuant to Section 407.090,” she wrote. “As a result, Backpage’s request that the Court enjoin AG Hawley’s efforts to investigate and prosecute potential violations of the MMPA necessarily affects functions performed by the state court. The Court therefore holds that the state-court action is a ‘civil proceeding involving certain orders . . . uniquely in furtherance of the state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions.’”

Cohen dismissed Backpage’s complaint against Hawley.

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