Website asks Supreme Court to block subpoena over sex ads

The classified advertising website urged the Supreme Court on Tuesday to block a congressional subpoena that seeks information on how the company screens ads for possible sex trafficking.

Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer told the high court that the website's system for reviewing ads is part of the editorial process that is protected under the First Amendment.

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the website must respond to the subpoena within 10 days. A lower court also sided with the Senate last month, rejecting arguments that the subpoena was unconstitutional, overly broad and burdensome.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has tried for nearly a year to force Backpage to produce certain documents as part of its investigation into human trafficking over the Internet.

After the website refused to comply, the Senate voted 96-0 in March to hold the website in contempt. The vote allowed the Senate to pursue the documents in federal court. The case marks the first time in more than two decades that the Senate has enforced a subpoena in court.

Senate investigators have said that Backpage is a market leader in commercial sex advertising and has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking, including the trafficking of children. Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, says the documents he is seeking will help lawmakers determine what if any businesses practices and policies the company has to prevent criminal activity.

While Backpage has produced over 16,000 pages of documents responding to the subpoena, Ferrer said he objects to portions "that burden core editorial functions in violation of the First Amendment."

"This case presents a question of exceptional nationwide importance involving the protection the First Amendment provides to online publishers of third-party content when they engage in core editorial functions," Ferrer said in a brief filed to Chief Justice John Roberts.

Roberts can act on the request on his own or refer the matter to the full court.