The Craigslist.com home pages for American cities recently featured something odd: Where the hypertext for adult services would normally reside instead read in striking white lettering over a pitch black field “censored.” Craigslist did this out of its own volition.
“Craigslist could be sending more than one signal — that it was both capitulating to law enforcement and thumbing its nose at it.” noted New York Times contributor Claire Caine Miller in a recent article on Craigslist’s update. The San Francisco-based classifieds website has seen much pressure to stop hosting adult services from both the law and groups who see Craigslist’s accommodating adult classifieds as questionable at best.
After reading through the background of the tug-of-war between Craigslist and the powers-that-be, I am compelled to defend the website’s freedom of speech. I will not say inordinate attention has been paid to the case of the “Craigslist killer” Philip Markoff, a Boston medical student who was charged with robbing and killing Julissa Brisman in 2009 apparently through contact via Craigslist erotic services postings. The argument, though, espousing Craigslist’s shutting down a section of its classifieds out of fear of similar happenings is absurd. Yes, there is danger on the internet; Craigslist is no exception. However, dictating to Craigslist what it can and cannot allow its users to post won’t stop human trafficking, sexual assault, etc. Danger through electronic media must be avoided by the exercising of caution by individuals and through the work of law enforcement. The suppression of future crimes by legislating morality is not, however, an answer. Now there’s a slippery-slope argument: begin shutting down certain sites by the order of public officials for security reasons, and the precedent is set for interfering with private internet content for “questionable” activity.
Is Craigslist doing its part to keep users safe? Craigslist has implemented some measures of its own: in response to publicity from the Craigslist killing, the erotic services section was removed and switched to the more restrictive adult services section. Where posting to most other classified sections is free, Craigslist charged $10 for an adult services ad, and $5 for reposting the ad. Not to mention the fact that Craigslist users could flag inappropriate postings.
Can Craigslist do better? Yes. Is it with in its rights to host adult advertisements? According to most litigation on the state and federal level, yes. As long as there is no imminent danger to the public, there is nothing the government can do, as should be the case. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in his 1919 decision for Schenck v. U.S. famously established the limitations of free speech by designating the false yelling of “fire” in a crowded theatre as an example of impermissible free speech. No one, however, is yelling “fire” here. As for whether Craigslist is capitulating to or thumbing its nose at law enforcement, I have to judge, by the visible manner in which access to adult services has been blocked (as opposed to just quietly a removing the section), that the latter option is more at play.
Vicente Patiño is a sophomore Architecture major
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