Backpage.com Chief Executive Carl Ferrer and the classified-ad company’s former owners are seeking a dismissal of the pimping and conspiracy charges filed against them in California, which they describe as unconstitutional, unjustified by facts, and a violation of federal communications law, as well as a blatant ploy for publicity from California Attorney General (AG) Kamala Harris. The state “cannot pursue the charges asserted and, in fact, is expressly precluded from doing so under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act,” their attorney, James Grant, wrote in a letter to Harris, who is currently running for U.S. Congress.
She can’t claim ignorance: three years ago, Harris was one of several state attorneys general who pleaded with Congress to change the law so that they could prosecute Backpage, specifically admitting that, as is, Section 230 “prevents state and local law enforcement” from doing so. Congress said no.
“It is troubling that the State is now pursuing a prosecution you admitted you have no authority to bring,” Grant wrote.
Ferrer and his co-defendants, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, were booked for pimping, pimping a minor, attempted pimping of a minor, and conspiracy, based on the state’s contention that they know some of the tens of millions of user-generated posts on Backpage.com are veiled ads for prostitution, sometimes involving teenagers. As evidence of this, the state pointed out that Backpage blocks ads explicitly offering prostitution, states clearly that ads in the “adult” section can only be posted by adults, and promptly removes posts that are reported to advertise sex or underage women. In the topsy-turvy logic of the criminal complaint, the fact that Backpage policies are designed to prevent commercial-sex advertising and the prostitution of minors shows that execs actually condone these things, because said policies encourage posters of illicit sex ads to conceal their true intentions.
“The AG’s Complaint and theory of prosecution are frankly outrageous,” state the defendants in a formal objection to the changes, filed October 19. “The basis for the AG’s charges is that third-party users posted ads on Backpage.com, and the AG’s office determined by responding to the ads that the users were offering prostitution.”
In total the complaint mentions nine ads, for which Backpage received $79.60. It does not allege that Ferrer, Lacey, or Larkin knew the ad-posters were discreetly offering sex for cash, knew the ad posters personally at all, had ever seen the ads in question, or had any direct knowledge of these ads.
In his letter to the AG, the Backpage attorney notes that a recent federal court ruling against the Sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, “reject[ed] much the same theories that [California] asserts here,” and that the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that “states cannot punish parties that publish or distribute speech without proving they had knowledge of illegality.” In addition, “Section 230 expressly preempts all inconsistent civil and criminal state laws,” he notes. “Literally hundreds of cases have applied and underscored the broad immunity that Section 230 provides and that Congress intended so as to avoid government interference— especially by state authorities—that would chill free speech on the Internet.”
Backpage itself has fought for these rights many times, winning cases in federal courts in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington, Tennessee, Illinois, and Missouri. But knowing the law is on their side “was of modest comfort,” said Lacey and Larkin, “as we were being booked into the Sacramento County jail and paraded in front of the press in orange jump suits last week on a charge Ms. Harris knew she had no legal authority to bring when she brought it.”
The former Backpage owners suggested that California’s AG knows she won’t prevail here but doesn’t care because conviction isn’t the point. Their arrest in early October generated massive publicity for Harris just before the election, almost universally portraying her actions in a positive light.
“Make no mistake; Kamala Harris has won all that she was looking to win when she had us arrested,” state Lacey and Larkin. “She issued her sanctimonious public statement, controlled her media cycle and got her ‘perp walk’ on the evening news. … And if the polls are any indication, Harris will be warmly ensconced in the United States Senate by the time her blatant violations of the First Amendment and federal law are finally adjudicated. She won’t pay. The taxpayers of California will.”