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Published September 27 2013

Fargo legislator Thoreson defends position on sex ad law

FARGO – The role state Rep. Blair Thoreson, a Fargo Republican, serves with a national conservative group has him leading an effort to block a change in federal law to allow state prosecutors to go after websites that host ads for child sex trafficking.

Thoreson said Friday he’s concerned the proposal backed by numerous state attorneys general, including North Dakota’s, could have a “chilling effect” on Internet commerce.

is chairman of the Communications and Technology Task Force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit alliance of conservative state legislators, businesses and foundations.

The task force recently approved a draft resolution asking Congress not to grant the request of attorneys general from across the country who want to be able to prosecute websites for hosting child sex ads under the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Thoreson, who was quoted in a national story about the issue this week, said while much of the focus has been on online classified ad sites such as Backpage.com, he’s also spoken to bloggers concerned that if the law changes, they could be held responsible for something illegal someone else posts to their site.

“My concern is that if we were to change that, it could have quite a chilling effect on new companies starting up online which are doing sales or commerce or whatever, or just the expression of free speech,” he said.

Thoreson said the draft resolution still needs approval from ALEC’s board of directors before it can be released as a model resolution for conservative lawmakers to introduce in state capitols across the country.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and his counterparts in Minnesota, Montana and South Dakota were among the 47 attorneys general who signed a letter sent in July to the chairmen of the House and Senate commerce committees asking them to change the law.

Stenehjem said Friday it’s a “relatively modest request.”

“The states always did have the authority to investigate and prosecute these until the Communications Decency Act was interpreted to say only the federal government can do criminal investigations” of websites that host the ads, he said. “We’re wanting to put this back the way that it was before then.”

Stenehjem said the law pertains only to criminal activity and won’t affect civil rights.

“And so it shouldn’t have any detrimental effect on anybody who wants to engage in a legitimate enterprise,” he said.

Thoreson said he understands that the attorney generals are trying to do the right thing and “put a stop to these perverts that are out there preying on kids.

“But I think, you know, this might have an unintended consequence of stopping other commerce on the Internet,” he said.

Thoreson said he has spoken to Stenehjem about the issue and hopes it can be addressed by strengthening existing laws without changing federal law.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528