SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A California judge on Friday tossed out pimping charges against the operators of Backpage.com, ruling that the website is protected by the First Amendment and not liable for content published by third parties.
In a criminal case ripe with free-speech implications, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael G. Bowman said the popular online classified advertisement website is shielded from liability under the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996. Bowman rebuked California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ claims that Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer and two shareholders were criminally exploiting minors by allowing pimps to post sexual advertisements using underage children.
In granting the Backpage.com defendants’ demurrer, Bowman reiterated that holding online publishers liable for their users’ content is a matter for “Congress, not this court, to revisit.”
“Regardless of the grave potential for harm that may result in the exercise of this article of faith, Congress has precluded liability for online publishers for the action of publishing third-party speech and thus provided for both a foreclosure from prosecution and an affirmative defense at trial,” Bowman said in a 15-page ruling.
Harris and state prosecutors accused the Backpage.com executives of running the world’s “top online brothel” and arrested the trio in October. Ferrer, 55, was charged with pimping a minor, conspiracy to commit pimping and pimping, while the site’s former owners Michael Lacey, 67, and Jim Larkin, 68, were charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
Prosecutors said Backpage.com earns more than 90 percent of its revenue from adult advertisements and operates a website that facilitates sex and human trafficking. Prior to Friday’s ruling, Harris filed a brief that included emails gathered during its three-year joint investigation of the Backpage defendants with Texas officials, and asked the court for a preliminary hearing.
Shunning a preliminary hearing, Bowman stuck with his tentative order and ruled against the state. Bowman dismissed all charges against the men and exonerated the bond they paid in October.
In a statement, Harris said the Communications Decency Act was “not meant to be a shield from criminal prosecution for perpetrators of online brothels.”
“The evidence is clear – these defendants are responsible for personally creating and publishing the content that was used to pimp and traffic victims on their websites,” Harris said.
After their arrest in October, the men accused Harris of pulling an election stunt. Harris was one of two candidates running to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate, and went on to win overwhelmingly on election night.
Despite the setback, Harris promised not to “turn a blind eye” and continue to investigate Backpage.com’s “criminal enterprise.”
“To all those who have been victimized by pimps online and trafficked through Backpage.com, you are not alone and the fight for justice is not over. We are exploring all legal options and will continue to advocate for all victims and to aggressively prosecute those who prey on and exploit the vulnerable,” Harris said.