SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California judge rejected pimping charges Friday against the operators of a major international website advertising escort services that the state attorney general has called the “world’s top online brothel,” citing federal free speech laws.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris had charged Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, but Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman sided with attorneys for the men and the website in ruling that the speech was allowed under the federal Communications Decency Act.
The section of the act that applies to the case protects websites from content posted by third parties, such as restaurant or shopping reviews from being held accountable for scathing reviews left by customers or online news sites from vicious reader comments.
“This Court finds it difficult to see any illegal behavior outside of the reliance upon the content of speech created by others,” Bowman wrote in Friday’s ruling. “The whiff of illegality is detected only when considering the alleged content of the statements contained in the ads.”
Bowman’s action Friday makes final a previous tentative ruling.
Ferrer, 55, was charged with pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping. Lacey, 68, and Larkin, 67, both from Arizona, were charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
Ferrer was arrested Oct. 6 at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport, having arrived from Amsterdam after his Dallas headquarters was raided.
Lacey and Larkin are the former owners of the Village Voice alternative newspaper in New York City.
“I think this is a victory for the rule of law more than it is for Backpage,” said Robert Corn-Revere, who represents Backpage. “Judge Bowman’s ruling made clear that the protections of the First Amendment exist for a reason. I suppose that reason is to prevent this kind of abuse of power.”
Harris, a Democrat who was elected to the U.S. Senate last month, alleged that more than 90 percent of Backpage revenue — millions of dollars each month — comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.
She said in a statement that she disagreed with the court’s ruling and will pursue every avenue under the law to hold the operators accountable.
“The Communications Decency Act was not meant to be a shield from criminal prosecution for perpetrators of online brothels,” Harris said in the statement. “We will not turn a blind eye to the defendants’ exploitative behavior simply because they conducted their criminal enterprise online rather than on a street corner.”