Backpage.com: Dismissal is Insufficient — Charge Harris

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On November 1, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman dismissed pimping charges against Carl Ferrer, the CEO of Backpage.com, as well as the site’s controlling shareholders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, on free speech grounds. The ruling is a victory against Internet censorship, but it’s just a start. It’s time to send a strong message to grandstanding prosecutors who abuse the justice system for self-promotional purposes.

When California Attorney General (now US Senator-elect) Kamala Harris ordered the arrests, she knew better.

Yes, escorts — many of them presumably sex workers — purchase advertising in Backpage.com’s “adult” section. The ads are pretty racy, but based my (minimal) research they do not plainly offer sex for money.

Yes, Backpage.com accepts payment for, and runs, ads.  Presumably they don’t investigate each, or for that matter, any advertiser. Nor are they legally obliged to.  The Communications Decency Act is quite clear: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Backpage.com has prevailed in court in several cases similar to the California action.

If anything, the site goes the extra mile: Their terms prohibit “[p]osting any solicitation directly or in ‘coded’ fashion for any illegal service exchanging sexual favors for money or other valuable consideration.”  Readers agree, prior to viewing adult ads, to report illegal activities.

There was no case here. Ferrer and company are clearly not pimps under any reasonable definition.

Harris must have known that. Yes, she failed the bar exam her first time out, but she eventually passed, has practiced law for more than 25 years now, and as California’s top government attorney has a staff of other lawyers to advise her. There’s no avoiding the conclusion that she knowingly wasted taxpayer money on an obviously bogus prosecution, presumably to get media face time and burnish her “tough on crime” credentials for campaign purposes.

Worse, she and those who assisted her (including but not limited to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had Ferrer arrested and extradited) clearly violated United States Code, Title 18, Chapter 241:

“If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same … They shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years …”

The US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division should take notice of this case and make an example of Harris. It’s time to bring an end to the era of malicious prosecution for political profit.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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