THE COOK COUNTY SHERIFF AND PROSTITUTION: HE NEEDS TO MOVE ON

 

Prostitution runs rampant throughout the world—after all, it is said to “be the oldest profession in the world.” The United States is no exception. Sex is on the minds of most people multiple times per day. Regardless of one’s moral acceptance or rejection of the concept of prostitution, in general, few logical people would disagree with the premise that the “business” aspect of the ancient practice carries with it multitude pitfalls—many of which are lethal.

Proponents of the legalizing of prostitution argue that many of these collateral effects— such as murder, psychological issues, disease, addiction, increased crime, substantial policing and prosecutorial costs, could all be mostly eliminated through careful regulatory measures; for example, sex workers could be licensed (for a fee), required to submit to regular medical exams, and the profits could be taxed. The middlemen (aka “pimps”) would be stricken from the equation, soaring policing costs would subside, crime would drop, mental health assistance (including guidance on those issues that may impact someone’s decision to engage in prostitution) could be provided, and over 40 million Americans could turn their fantasies into reality, legally. The mental strain placed on prostitutes is hard to measure; many young women say they are only in it for a short time, or until they can get caught up financially and move on in their lives. Many suffer from serious bouts of anxiety and depression as a result of the moral stigma some members of society place on prostitution.  “Johns” (slang for a customer), can also be subjected to humiliation and severe penalties for engaging in consensual financial transactions with prostitutes. It is common for police agencies to seize and forfeit the vehicle he or she is driving. Some jurisdictions offer diversion programs where a “John” can avoid conviction provided he participates in community programs where, in some cases, he must confront angry citizens from the communities. One can only imagine the perplexed face of the husband when his wife asks where the family car is.

Opponents are often against the legalization of prostitution for religious reasons. Still others don’t think it is right for people to charge for sex—however, most cannot explain why it is wrong in general beyond the aforementioned collateral problems. Many sex workers (a preferred name by many in the industry) offer some pithy responses to those who denigrate their work and pass judgment on them because they feel it is their body and their choice to work in the field—parallels to the right to abortion are sometimes drawn.

Sex is on the mind of our top law enforcement officers as well. Illinois Cook County Sheriff, Tom Dart has been on a crusade to combat the evil effects of prostitution. He is attacking online purveyors of thinly disguised sex-for-hire ads, most notably,  Backpage.com. Aware that first amendment law likely prohibits direct constitutional attacks on the publication, he resorted to thinly disguised threats to credit card companies that customers in the adult section of the pages were allegedly using to obtain sex and related services. The credit card companies folded like a deck of cards and had virtually shut down a large part of the company’s business. Backpage.com sued the sheriff for damages and also petitioned (sought an injunction) in federal court to make him take back his words. One allegation in the suit was set forth as follows:

  1. Sheriff Dart’s actions are an unconstitutional prior restraint of speech without legal authority or due process. See Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan, 372 U.S. 58 (1963). The First Amendment precludes a government official from banning a forum of speech simply because he dislikes it. Prior restraints are presumptively unconstitutional and can be imposed [citation omitted] only in the most exigent of circumstances, requiring the least restrictive means to further a compelling state interest and requisite procedural safeguards. Sheriff Dart’s actions do not come close to passing constitutional muster.

 

According to the Chicago Tribune,  “A federal judge on Monday denied a preliminary injunction request that would have forced Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to retract statements he made in lobbying credit card companies to block their cards from being used to buy sex ads on Backpage.com.”

Primarily, the court noted that the sheriff’s actions could be construed as threats, but it didn’t amount to censorship because Dart had no legal authority to force the credit card companies to do anything. The early decision by the judge does not impact the underlying suit for damages brought by Backpage.com.

Regardless of your own opinion on these issues, it seems clear that the sheriff in Chicago is on some type of crusade. You would think there are better things for him to focus on such as homicides, drug addiction, the need for more mental health help, programs for the youth, racial barrier issues, for openers—for now, though, he appears to, like the other millions of men and women in the country,  have sex on his mind. He needs to move on.

 

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