SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — After being "paraded in front of the press" last week in a Sacramento courthouse, Backpage.com executives arrested on pimping charges have demanded that California Attorney General Kamala Harris drop the criminal case.
Attorneys for Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer and two controlling shareholders filed a motion Wednesday arguing that the state's charges were "meritless" and unconstitutional because Backpage's online adult advertisements are protected by the First Amendment.
Ferrer and the two shareholders were arrested earlier this month and accused of running a "pimping conspiracy" through online escort ads featuring minors. The three-year joint investigation between Texas and California officials resulted in 17 incidents of pimping conspiracy, according to the indictment.
"Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world's top online brothel," Harris said in a statement regarding the indictment.
On Wednesday, former Backpage owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin accused Harris of trumping up the charges against the popular website for political gain.
Harris is the current favorite of two candidates running to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate.
"Make no mistake; Kamala Harris has won all that she was looking to win when she had us arrested," Lacey and Larkin said in a statement. "Of course knowing the law was of modest comfort 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."
In their demurrer, the men say the charges violate a federal law limiting liability for website operators posting content submitted by third parties, and violate the First Amendment.
"The First Amendment bars the prosecution because imposing an obligation on publishers to review all speech to ensure that none is unlawful would severely chill free expression," the motion states.
The defendants have posted bail. A hearing is set for Nov. 16 in Sacramento Superior Court.
The Backpage executives are being defended by a squad of attorneys, including James Grant of Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington and San Francisco-based Cristina Arguedas.
In a letter sent to Harris this week, Grant explained that the attorney general previously acknowledged that she doesn't have the authority to bring charges against Backpage.com and that investigators have already "burdened and infringed the rights of these gentlemen."
"Indeed, in July 2013, you and other state attorneys general signed a letter to various members of Congress urging that Section 230 be amended to exempt state criminal laws from the Communications Decency Act immunity so that you could pursue Backpage.com," Grant wrote.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.