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Sex trafficking bill prompts Craigslist to drop personal ads

Widespread crackdown on “all sorts of sex spaces, from dating sites to webcams” feared

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Craigslist, gay news, Washington Blade

Craigslist last week pulled the plug on its popular personal ads.

The U.S. Senate last week voted 97-2 to approve an anti-sex trafficking bill that would subject websites to criminal prosecution and civil litigation if they accept advertising, knowingly or unknowingly, linked to both coerced sex-trafficking as well as sex work engaged in by consenting adults.

The Senate’s lopsided passage of the bill, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA, came one month after the House passed an identical version of the measure. The White House has said President Trump will sign the bill.

The Senate’s action assuring the bill would become law prompted Craigslist to immediately drop its personals ads, including its widely read “men seeking men” personals site. It cited potentially harmful legal fallout from the FOSTA bill as its reason for doing so.

“U.S. Congress just passed HR 1865, ‘FOSTA,’ seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully,” Craigslist states in a message posted on its site.

“Any tool or service can be misused,” the message says. “We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day,” says its message.

“To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through Craigslist, we wish you every happiness!” Craigslist says in its message.

The action by Craigslist raised questions about whether other online sites that include sexually oriented content, including sex or dating hook-up sites like the gay site Grindr, would follow Craigslist and shut down their sites.

Grindr did not respond to a Washington Blade inquiry seeking Grindr’s thoughts on the FOSTA bill and how it might impact its operations.

The popular Reddit site, which includes links and postings by its members on a wide range of subjects, shut down its sex work “subreddits” sections, according to the Free Speech Coalition.

Several advocacy organizations representing Internet service providers and civil liberties groups, including the ACLU, expressed strong opposition to the FOSTA bill prior to the votes by the House and Senate to approve it.

They argued that the legislation would be a threat to free speech and limit the free flow of content on the Internet. Opponents say existing federal law already allows state and federal prosecutors to go after criminal activity on the Internet such as sex trafficking and that the FOSTA bill would hinder rather than help in efforts to crack down on trafficking.

They also expressed concern that the bill’s provision amending the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which has exempted website operators from liability for third party content in which the website has no involvement, could result in widespread censorship and curtail the growth of online commerce.

That 1996 law has been credited with enabling the Internet to grow and flourish without excessive restrictions that could have prevented its exponential growth over the past 20 years.

Supporters of the bill, however, have argued that FOSTA is needed to remove what they say has been uncertainty over whether prosecutors have legal authority to go after the growing use of online sites by criminals to promote sex trafficking. Supporters point to court rulings that prevented prosecutors from pursuing websites linked to trafficking on grounds that the Communications Decency Act would not allow them to penalize the sites.

“The bill amends the federal criminal code to specify that the violation for benefiting from ‘participation in a venture’ engaged in sex trafficking of children, or sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion, including knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitation of the violation,” according to a report on the bill released by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which worked on the bill.

The committee report says the bill also gives state attorneys general authority to bring a civil action in federal court against an Internet operator found to have “knowingly” participated in sex trafficking or that aided or abetted sex trafficking.

Many of the bill’s supporters, including senators and House members supportive of LGBT rights, have cited an investigation by the Senate committee into the website Backpage.com and its alleged complicity in accepting sex trafficking ads as their reason for supporting FOSTA.

Backpage had become known as a site where sex workers advertised their services. Sex worker advocacy groups have said the overwhelming majority of the ads were for sex between consenting adults, which enabled sex workers to operate safely at indoor locations and avoid having to ply their trade on the streets.

But Senate investigators reported finding that some Backpage employees coached people involved in sex trafficking of both adults and minors how to write their ads to avoid suspicion that they were engaging in sex trafficking. A number of senators monitoring the investigation said the findings show that websites such as Backpage put profits from the sale of their ads ahead of the dangers and harm brought about by sex trafficking.

Backpage denied it did such things and insisted it had been working with authorities to identity any sex trafficking operators attempting to use its site.

In a joint statement released on the day the Senate passed FOSTA, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who chairs the committee and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) the ranking Democrat on the committee, expressed their strong support for the bill.

“We simply cannot sit idly by any longer while websites aid and abet child sex traffickers,” Nelson said. “The cost of further inaction is far too high.”

Thune thanked the many witnesses that testified in favor of the bill by telling their stories about being victimized by sex trafficking. “Today’s vote pushes back against the growth of illegal sex trafficking on the Internet,” he said.

A coalition of civil liberties groups, including the ACLU, voiced their opposition to FOSTA and the House version of the bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, in an Aug. 4, 2017 letter.

“We appreciate and support the bill sponsors’ deep commitment to fighting human trafficking,” the letter states. “But the approach of SESTA, to create substantial new federal and state criminal and civil liability for the Internet intermediaries that host third-party speech, will lead to increased censorship across the web and will discourage proactive efforts by intermediaries to identify and remove trafficking material from their services,” the letter says.

In a separate letter it sent to senators on March 19, shortly before the Senate voted on the FOSTA bill, the Human Rights Campaign expressed concern that the bill would have a negative impact on “the most marginalized members of the LGBTQ community, including members of the transgender community and people of color.”

The letter, written by David Stacy, HRC’s government affairs director, says many of the websites likely to be targeted under the FOSTA and SESTA legislation “serve as a critical tool for distributing comprehensive health and safety information, such as HIV prevention and treatment information as well as access to community support services.”

Stacy adds in the letter that, “As written, both bills in their current form are likely to compromise both anti-trafficking efforts and harm reduction goals.”

“The Human Rights Campaign has long supported efforts to combat sex trafficking, including the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which enhanced the federal government’s authority to address this problem,” the letter says.

Mike Stabile, a spokesperson for the Free Speech Coalition, a California-based group that represents the adult film industry, said the FOSTA bill approved by Congress could have a profound impact on LGBT websites involved in dating or hookups.

“We are expecting a widespread crackdown on all sorts of sex spaces, from dating sites to webcams,” he said. “The law does not differentiate between consensual sex work and sex trafficking, and creates major liabilities for any online platform, from an escort site to Twitter, where people interact directly,” Stabile said.

Asked if he thought sites like Grindr could be held legally liable under the legislation, he said the Free Speech Coalition believes they can.

“Under FOSTA, dating sites and apps would be legally liable if someone were to use the site in a way that’s construed as sex trafficking,” he said. “This law was written so broadly and poorly that we expect that we’ll see the widespread closure of any forum that could potentially be used in a trafficking case.”

Stabile said he’s certain that civil liberties advocates will challenge the law’s constitutionality in court, but that will take a while to happen and in the meantime many sites will likely censor anything that hints of commercial sex regardless of whether it’s between consenting adults.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Indiana GSA sues school district that banned Pride flags over another ban

“The treatment aimed at PHGSA by administrators is unwarranted- these students must be treated in the same manner all others are treated”

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Pendleton Heights High School in Pendleton, Indiana (Screenshot via WTHR NBC 13 News)

INDIANAPOLIS – A student led Gay-Straight Alliance at Pendleton Heights High School in Pendleton, Indiana filed suit against their school and the South Madison Community Schools District for banning public announcements and adverts in-school for their club.

Last Spring officials in the Schools District, in this suburban community 30 miles northeast of Indianapolis, ordered faculty members at Pendleton Heights High School to remove Rainbow Pride flags from classrooms. The Schools District labeled the flags “political paraphernalia”  and instructed the Spanish, French and art teachers to get the flags out of their classrooms saying the flags violate their school district’s “political paraphernalia” policy.

In the suit filed last Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana on behalf of the Pendleton Heights High GSA, in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, the ACLU noted that the principal at Pendleton Heights has stated that the PHGSA cannot publicize its existence on school bulletin boards or on the school’s radio station, while other curricular and non-curricular clubs at the school are able to do so. 

“This group aims to create an environment that provides support to students, during a time that otherwise might be increasingly difficult for LGBTQ students,” said Kit Malone, advocacy strategist at ACLU of Indiana. “The differential treatment aimed at Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance by administrators is unwarranted and these students must be treated in the same manner that all other student groups are treated.” 

Pendleton Heights Principal Connie Rickert has the authority to decide what student groups are allowed to meet at the school and which ones are deemed to be “official.” Last Spring she deflected on the apparent anti-LGBTQ+ messaging the order to remove the flags sent telling one media outlet; ““Teachers are legally obligated to maintain viewpoint neutrality during their official duties to ensure all students can focus on learning and we can maintain educational activities and school operations,” she said. “Our counselors are trained to respond to any student who desires support.”

While she has allowed the GSA club to meet, her banning announcements and notifications for the GSA runs contrary to her statements last Spring that that her school prides itself on creating a welcoming environment for all. 

“Students at Pendleton Heights High School may participate in non-curricular clubs recognized by the school,” said Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana legal director. “By creating additional hurdles for Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance such as censoring the group’s promotions and prohibiting fundraising, the school is infringing on these students’ rights.” 

The South Madison Community Schools District has declined comment.

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Texas

Alarming numbers of Texas Trans kids in crisis over litany of anti-Trans bills

“Under the guise of protecting children- Texas legislators are directly harming thousands of transgender & nonbinary youth”

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LGBTQ youth protest anti-Trans bills at the Texas Capitol building (Photo Credit: Equality Texas)

NEW YORK – The Trevor Project received nearly 4,000 crisis contacts from transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas in 2021, with many directly stating that they are feeling stressed and considering suicide due to anti-trans laws being debated in their state.

This new data comes during a year when Texas lawmakers have proposed nearly 70 anti-LGBTQ bills, including more than 40 bills that specifically target transgender and nonbinary youth — far more than any other state.

The Texas State Senate passed its anti-trans sports ban SB3 this week, and the companion bill HB10 is now moving forward in the Texas House. 

Republican Texas Governor Abbott has prioritized SB 3 and called for a third consecutive special session of the legislature to consider this bill, which would ban transgender student-athletes from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

“The Trevor Project’s crisis counselors have been hearing from transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas who are scared and worried about anti-trans laws being debated in their state — and some have even expressed suicidal thoughts. This is a crisis. We urge Texas lawmakers to consider the weight of their words and actions — and to reject HB10/SB3,” said Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project.

  • Between January 1 and August 30, 2021, The Trevor Project received more than 10,800 crisis contacts (calls, texts, and chats) from LGBTQ young people in Texas looking for support. More than 3,900 of those crisis contacts (36%) came from transgender or nonbinary youth.
  • Crisis contacts from LGBTQ young people in Texas seeking support have grown over 150% when compared to the same time period in 2020.
  • While this volume of crisis contacts can not be attributed to any one factor (or bill), a qualitative analysis of the crisis contacts found that:
  • Transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas have directly stated that they are feeling stressed, using self-harm, and considering suicide due to anti-LGBTQ laws being debated in their state.
  • Some transgender and nonbinary youth have expressed fear over losing access to sports that provide important acceptance in their lives.

“As a transgender young person in Texas, this new data from the Trevor Project is not surprising, but it’s nonetheless harrowing and alarming to see this representation of the detrimental impact Texas Lege is having on our community — especially our kids. Lawmakers and proponents of bills like SB3 and HB10 should be alarmed by these statistics, too,” Landon Richie a Trans youth activist and GenderCool Youth Leader from Houston told the Los Angeles Blade.

“Under the guise of protecting children and promoting fairness, Texas legislators are directly harming thousands of transgender and nonbinary youth, denying them the dignity, respect, and childhoods that they deserve. It’s never an exaggeration to say that the passage — and merely debate — of these bills will cost lives,”  Richie added.

National mental health organizations like The Trevor Project and state LGBTQ equality groups including Equality Texas and Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT) are raising concerns about the impact of such legislation on the mental health and wellbeing of transgender and nonbinary youth.

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than half (52%) of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide in the past year and 1 in 5 attempted suicide. Further, Trevor released a new research brief earlier this month on LGBTQ youth participation in sports, which found that a majority of LGBTQ young people (nearly 66%) do not actively participate in sports — with many citing fear of bullying and discrimination as a key factor for not participating.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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Utah

2nd largest school district in Utah bans Pride & BLM flags as ‘too political’

“We have to have a politically neutral classroom, and we’re going to educate the students in the best possible way that we can”

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Davis School District Offices in Farmington Utah (Photo Credit: Davis School District)

FARMINGTON, Ut. – Administrators this week in the Davis School District, which is Utah’s 2nd largest school district with 72,987 students, banned LGBTQ Pride and Black Lives Matter flags, saying they are ‘politically charged.’

According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, Davis Schools spokesperson Chris Williams told the paper; “No flags fly in our schools except for the flag of the United States of America.” Williams later walked that statement back adding a clarification that some of the Districts schools have flags from sports team or international countries which are considered “unrelated to politics.”

“What we’re doing is we’re following state law,” said Williams. “State law says that we have to have a classroom that’s politically neutral.”

Amanda Darrow, Director of Youth, Family, and Education at the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City, told multiple media outlets the school district is “politicizing the rainbow flag” which doesn’t belong on a political list.

“That flag for us is so much more,” said Darrow. “It is just telling us we’re included in the schools, we are being seen in the schools, and we belong in these schools.”

KUTV CBS2 News in Salt Lake City checked with the Utah State Board of Education. In an email, spokesman Mark Peterson said, “There is nothing in code that specifically defines a rainbow flag as a political statement so it would be up to district or charter school policies to make that determination.”

The local Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in saying in a statement;

Whether or not a school district has the legal ability to ban inclusive and supportive symbols from classrooms, it is bad policy for them to do so,” the advocacy organization said in a statement. “Utah schools have an obligation to ensure that all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identify, feel welcome inside a classroom. We urge school administrators and teachers to adopt policies that make all students feel safe and included.”

Williams insisted the policy is not meant to exclude anyone and that all students are loved and welcomed – they just want to keep politics out of school he told the Tribune and KUTV.

“We have to have a politically neutral classroom, and we’re going to educate the students in the best possible way that we can,” said Williams.

A Utah based veteran freelance journalist, writer, editor, and food photographer weighed in on Twitter highlighting the negative impact of the Davis Schools decision on its LGBTQ youth.

Davis County School District bans LGTBQ and BLM flags as ‘too political’

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