“This case raises some significant 1st Amendment concerns,” attorney Lawrence Walters told XBIZ. “We’re talking about the government agency effectively shutting down a newspaper that was critical of its activities. There may be some extenuating circumstances in this case, depending on how the facts play out. But the prospect of a special law enforcement task force taking newspaper employees into custody on racketeering charges based on the content of its advertising is antithetical to the precepts of the free speech guarantee.”
Walters added that it was important to remember that advertising is considered “commercial speech,” which means that it is protected under the 1st Amendment, just as the rest of the Weekly’s content is covered.
“If the government is successful here, the implications are particularly chilling for similar media outlets,” Walters said. “Will newspapers across the country now be required to conduct background investigations into their advertisers, to ensure that they’re not involved in any untoward activity?”
The potential impact of the case on websites like CraigsList.org also is uncertain, Walters said.
“While these sites enjoy greater protection against civil liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that provision does not appear to limit exposure to criminal prosecution,” Walters said. “So the basic approach that [Orlando’s Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation] is using might be utilized in the online realm, if a conviction ensues in the Orlando Weekly case.”
The arrests of the Weekly employees took place Oct. 19 at a job fair held at the Orlando Marriott Hotel. Officers from Orlando’s MBI arrested the newspaper’s classified ads director and two account executives following what was reportedly a two-year sting operation dubbed “Operation Weekly Shame.”
In the course of the sting, officers for the MBI reportedly posed as prostitutes interested in purchasing ads in the Weekly, and made it known to the representatives that fielded their advertising requests that the ads were for the purposes of furthering prostitution.
Rick Schreiber, publisher of the Orlando Weekly, staunchly defended his publication and his employees, and asserted that the arrests were made as a form of payback for negative coverage of the MBI that the Orlando Weekly has carried over the years.
“We suspect that the MBI has targeted our company because we are the only newspaper in the area that has been critical of the MBI in a series of investigative articles over the past several years,” Schreiber said.
In an article published following the arrests the paper describes the MBI as “an inept, inefficient police organization, answerable to no one.”
MBI Commander Paul Zambouros told reporters this week that the arrests had nothing to do with any vendetta against the paper, and nothing to do with the 1st Amendment.
“There are numerous advertisements for massage parlors and escorts and we have made numerous arrests for prostitution from the people from the advertisements,” Zambouros said.
Zambouros reportedly sent a letter to the head of the newspaper’s parent company asking him to pull the ads, which according to local media reports have generated $900,000 in advertising revenue for the Weekly in the past five years. The newspaper spurned Zambouros’ request and continued to publish the ads.
“The publisher told me that the only reason why we were making these demands is because the [MBI] did not like the press that the Orlando Weekly was giving us, which is absolutely not the case,” Zambouros said. “If the Orlando Weekly would have done away with their adult services section, we wouldn’t [be] having the conversation.”