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Judge Halts Prosecution of Craigslist for Sex Ads

Craigslist and prostitution
A South Carolina judge has blocked the state's attorney general from pursuing criminal charges against Craigslist for hosting ads soliciting prostitution.

The ruling, issued by Judge Weston Houck of the Charleston Division of U.S. District Court, grants Craigslist's request for a temporary restraining order against the office of Henry McMaster as it pursues its own lawsuit against the attorney general.

For the past three weeks, McMaster and Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster have been sparring in the media and through statements on their Web sites over Craigslist's legal culpability for the content of its site. The escalating war of words has seen the attorney general accuse Craigslist of turning a blind eye toward postings on its site advertising sex and containing pornography, while Buckmaster has shot back that McMaster is singling out Craigslist while ignoring the more numerous and explicit postings found on other media outlets.

The feud erupted following the high-profile murder of a masseuse in Boston who had met her alleged killer through Craigslist. On May 5, McMaster gave Craigslist a 10-day ultimatum to remove the sex ads from the South Carolina sections of the site. On May 13, after meetings with several other states' attorneys general, Craigslist announced that it would remove the erotic services listings, replacing them with an adult services section that would be manually monitored for illicit content.Craigslist said the last erotic services listings would drop off in seven days.

But in the meantime, McMaster's 10-day ultimatum expired and a few objectionable postings remained on the pages serving communities in South Carolina, and he said he planned to move ahead with his criminal investigation.

Craigslist responded with its lawsuit last week asking for a restraining order and declaratory relief, claiming that McMaster's case was unconstitutional.

Buckmaster, who has been doing most of his talking through the official Craigslist blog and declined to comment for this story, has adopted a harsh tone in the fight with McMaster that is a marked contrast from the more conciliatory postings on the issues of prostitution and crime dating back to the agreement the site reached in November with the attorneys general from 40 states, including South Carolina.

In a Friday post entitled "Turning a Blind Eye," Buckmaster wrote: "Notable as this news cycle winds down ... has been the absolute disinterest shown by politicians and journalists in hardcore sex-for-money ads featured in journalistic media, no matter how numerous or graphic they may be."

He then offered links to a bulleted list of 13 highly explicit ads for sexual services, including three in South Carolina, found on the online classifieds site Backpage.com, which is owned by Village Voice Media.

"It's worth noting that these ads' TITLES ALONE contain more explicit content than you will find in all Craigslist adult service ads combined," Buckmaster wrote.

He pointed out that Village Voice Media puts out a host of weekly newspapers, suggesting that McMaster doesn't want to pick a fight with a local media entity who will be reporting on his campaign for governor. Buckmaster also called attention to an AP story reporting that McMaster hadn't prosecuted any prostitution cases in his seven years as South Carolina's attorney general.

McMaster's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.