(Washington, DC) – Human Rights Watch and four other plaintiffs will present arguments on September 20, 2019 against the dismissal of their challenge to a 2017 United States law that imposes criminal liability for online speech about sex work.

The hearing will take place at 9:30 a.m. in Courtroom 31 of the E. Barrett Prettyman US Courthouse and William B. Bryant Annex in Washington, DC. Plaintiffs contend the law violates freedom of speech and makes sex work more dangerous for an already vulnerable and criminalized population, Human Rights Watch said.

People march in support of sex workers, Sunday, June 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. People marched in support of decriminalizing sex work and against the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, among other issues. 

© AP Photo/John Locher
The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, commonly known as FOSTA, makes it illegal to own or use an internet site with the intent to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” Because the law’s language is broad and vague, it could prevent sex workers and others from writing about sex work and posting about critically important health and safety issues, and it would restrict organizations like Human Rights Watch from effectively reporting on and advocating for the decriminalization of sex work.

“We’re going to keep fighting this law that threatens our ability to do our job – to clearly advocate for the rights of sex workers and to see our work shared freely across the internet,” said Skye Wheeler, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “We’ve already seen the law impel many partners and intermediaries to take down information that helps guide sex workers to online resources to protect themselves.”

Sex workers and sex worker organizations in the United States have said FOSTA has endangered them. Websites that made it easier for sex workers to screen clients and to sell sex in safer locations have stopped sex workers from posting.

The co-plaintiffs in the case with Human Rights Watch are the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, the Internet Archive, and individuals Alex Andrews and Eric Koszyk. The lower court dismissed the case in September 24, 2018 without addressing the substantive claims, on the basis that plaintiffs faced no imminent risk of prosecution. The plaintiffs will argue that the court applied the wrong standard, and that, in cases involving free expression, the appropriate lens is whether speech will be unconstitutionally burdened or chilled.

“We’ve already seen a chilling impact from FOSTA and it has affected how our partners work,” Wheeler said. “We’re not going to sit around and wait to be prosecuted before we fight this law.”