Founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin Go on Trial Over Sex Worker Ads

Three years after the preferred place to promote “grownup providers” was seized by the U.S. authorities, its founders will stand trial Wednesday in an Arizona courtroom, in a case that would have lasting repercussions for the way forward for on-line intercourse work.

The defendants, alt-weekly titans Michael Lacey and James Larkin, declare their web site,, was a utopia without cost expression, a spot the place “unpopular” speech was allowed to flourish and thrive. However the U.S. Division of Justice contends it was additionally a spot the place girls and ladies had been intercourse trafficked in opposition to their will, with Lacey and Larkin’s information.

Whom the decide sides with will decide whether or not Lacey and Larkin are locked away for many years, and whether or not on-line intercourse work—and probably on-line expression, typically—will ever look the identical once more.

“Intercourse staff are the canary within the coal mine,” mentioned Savannah Sly, a longtime intercourse employee and advocate from Seattle. “And most of the people higher take note of what occurs with Backpage.”

Michael Lacey testifies earlier than the U.S. Senate in 2017.

U.S. Senate

Till their houses had been raided and their belongings seized, Larkin and Lacey had been, in lots of regards, an web success story. After founding the Phoenix New Instances as pugnacious faculty journalists, the pair went on to buy greater than 17 native magazines throughout the USA, amassing the most important chain of alt-weeklies within the nation. Simply as print revenues began to fade, that they had the concept to digitize the categorized advertisements behind their papers and put them on a web site:

Whereas Backpage took advertisements for something from vehicles to buying and selling playing cards, the majority of its income got here from so-called “grownup” advertisements, which provided providers the federal government argues had been flippantly coded euphemisms for prostitution. (Among the many choices had been advertisements for an “extraordinarily sexy horny beginner” and a “darkish Asian bombshell with a pleasant & tight booty,” based on an indictment.) The thought proved massively worthwhile: The positioning went from incomes $26 million in 2010 to greater than $134 million in 2014. By 2015, it had reportedly earned its homeowners greater than $500 million.

However whereas the earnings piled up, so did the horror tales: girls and ladies allegedly held in opposition to their will and trafficked by pimps, buddies, or members of the family utilizing Backpage as a advertising and marketing instrument. (One lady mentioned she was raped more than 1,000 times after being marketed on the positioning as a teenage runaway.) Backpage turned a white whale for formidable younger prosecutors trying to show their chops, and for politicians hoping to muster goodwill in an election yr. Three states handed legal guidelines particularly meant to take the web site down; 51 state attorneys common signed onto a letter accusing the positioning of being a “hub” for human trafficking. Dozens of alleged victims filed civil fits. None of it caught.

Backpage’s founders wrestled themselves out of those authorized battles with the successful mixture of a well-funded authorized crew and a 1996 federal regulation: Part 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that web site homeowners can’t be held accountable for what customers put up on their platforms. In 2016, when authorities in Texas and California raided the web site’s Dallas headquarters and charged the founders with “pimping” and “pimping conspiracy,” a Superior Courtroom decide dismissed the costs, explicitly citing Part 230. When then-California Legal professional Normal Kamala Harris filed new fees in opposition to the founders that very same month, a decide dismissed them once more.

The one authorized problem that appeared to stay was a 2012 swimsuit by three Washington girls who claimed they had been trafficked by way of Backpage once they had been as younger as 13 years previous. The state Supreme Courtroom dominated that the case may go ahead, and Backpage finally settled. On the similar time, nonetheless, the founders unwittingly prevented legal prosecution in the identical state—partially because of their very own cooperation with authorities.


Then-Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, heart, was among the many Washington officers who condemned Backpage in 2012.

Mayor McGinn/Wikimedia Commons

In keeping with paperwork printed by Reason, federal prosecutors within the Western District of Washington reviewed greater than 100,000 paperwork and interviewed greater than a dozen witnesses in 2012 in an try to carry a case in opposition to Backpage, however didn’t discover a smoking gun. In reality, based on a memo written by two assistant U.S. attorneys on the time, native FBI brokers discovered the corporate “remarkably aware of regulation enforcement requests” and mentioned the positioning “typically takes proactive steps to help in investigations.”

“On the outset of this investigation, it was anticipated that we’d discover proof of candid discussions amongst [Backpage] principals about using the positioning for juvenile prostitution which may very well be used as admissions of legal conduct,” the attorneys wrote in a 2013 replace to the memo. “It was additionally anticipated that we’d discover quite a few cases the place Backpage realized {that a} web site consumer was a juvenile prostitute and Backpage callously continued to put up ads for her. To this point, the investigation has revealed neither.”

After greater than a decade of success, Larkin and Lacey’s luck finally ran out. The U.S. Senate, which had been investigating Backpage for years, efficiently subpoenaed hundreds of thousands of pages of inner paperwork and printed them in a extremely damaging report in 2017. Among the many paperwork had been inner emails that the federal government claims present Backpage workers deliberately eliminated phrases from ads that prompt prostitution—and much more damningly, baby prostitution—and printed them anyway, eliminating the proof however not the crime. In response to the report, Backpage pulled its grownup advert part, blaring the phrase “censored” throughout the web page.

A bit of over a yr later, in a 61-page indictment that pulled closely from the Senate investigation, the U.S. Division of Justice hit Lacey, Larkin, and 5 different Backpage workers with 93 counts, together with a number of sorts of cash laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. Federal authorities raided Lacey’s house and arrested Larkin on the Phoenix airport tarmac; additionally they seized the web site and a lot of the founders’ different belongings. Larkin and Lacey have been on home arrest ever since.


James Larkin, Backpage co-founder.

CaptainKangaroo666/Wikimedia Commons

Supporters level out that the founders and different workers had been by no means charged with trafficking—a lot of the fees stem from the Sixties-era Journey Act, which prohibits companies from conducting criminal activity like playing and prostitution throughout state strains. However the indictment additionally offered paperwork that strongly recommend workers of Backpage had seen, and in some circumstances, eliminated, proof of underage ladies being marketed on their web site. In a single notably jarring instance, prosecutors allege that an worker shared an inventory of phrases to be “filtered” from ads earlier than publication, which included phrases like “lolita,” “younger,” and “highschool.”

Attorneys for Larkin and Lacey argue that they had been merely publishing ads for escort and therapeutic massage providers, as alt-weeklies have executed since their inception. They declare this can be a First Modification case, and that requiring Backpage to reject advertisements merely suggestive of prostitution could be an unlawful infringement on free speech—an odorous thought to the founders of a mud-slinging impartial journalism empire.

In a usually swashbuckling assertion launched earlier than the trial, Larkin and Lacey decried the prosecution as an “epic authorities overreach and an unprecedented assault on the First Modification and freedom of speech” and claimed they had been being held “vicariously accountable for the legal acts of others.”

“The culprits right here are usually not publishers and editors, or the executives of an interactive web site,” they wrote. “Somewhat, they’re self-serving politicians with historic vendettas and overzealous prosecutors who positioned their very own ambition above the security and welfare of ladies.”

They added: “Taking down Backpage was extra necessary to those individuals than doing the onerous work of creating girls and marginalized communities safer.”


Intercourse Employees and their supporters rallied in Minnesota in 2016 to protest a regulation enforcement crackdown on

Fibonacci Blue/Wikimedia Commons

Just like the trials of so many grownup web site homeowners—Jeffrey Hurant of RentBoy and Eric Omuro of myRedBook amongst them—the prosecution of Larkin and Lacey may have been a fleeting headline; a mere notch within the belt of aggressive DOJ prosecutors. However within the days after their arrest, one thing occurred in Washington that introduced the plight of on-line intercourse staff to nationwide consideration: President Trump signed into regulation FOSTA/SESTA, a regulation that minimize into the guts of Part 230 and made on-line publishers accountable for any advertisements on their websites selling prostitution.

In an announcement celebrating the signing of the invoice, Home sponsor Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO), claimed it could carry “solace to survivors,” and provides regulation enforcement “new instruments” with which to “crack down on this scourge in opposition to humanity.” Intercourse staff warned that it could have the alternative impact, pushing them off the web and onto the streets, the place that they had fewer protections and fewer management over who they noticed and when. Civil liberties teams together with the ACLU, Digital Frontier Basis, and Heart for Democracy and Expertise all got here out in opposition to it.

Within the weeks after its passage, FOSTA/SESTA felled not solely Backpage, however different grownup promoting websites like Therapeutic massage Republic and Cityvibe, and even the Craigslist private advertisements part. The influence was tangible: A survey from the intercourse employee advocacy group Hacking/Hustling discovered 33.8 p.c of respondents reported a rise in violence from shoppers after the regulation was signed, and 72.5 p.c reported they had been going through elevated monetary insecurity. Advocates associated tales of intercourse staff who had been thrust into the arms of pimps so as to discover work, or again into abusive relationships for need of someplace to remain.

Even the federal authorities admitted that the regulation had unintended penalties. In a June 2021 report, the Authorities Accountability Workplace reported that the web intercourse commerce had fragmented and moved largely abroad within the aftermath of FOSTA/SESTA, making it more durable to each observe offenders and discover victims. The FBI’s means to find intercourse trafficking victims and perpetrators “considerably decreased following the takedown of,” the report states. It provides: “In keeping with FBI officers, that is largely as a result of regulation enforcement was conversant in, and was typically aware of authorized requests for info.”

As time went on, the restrictions round on-line intercourse work grew tighter and tighter. In Could 2018, Reddit eliminated a number of intercourse work dialogue boards; in December of that yr, Tumblr eliminated all specific content material from its web site. Caught up within the firestorm, Backpage, and by default, Larkin and Lacey, turned a logo for the bigger battle for intercourse staff’ rights on-line.

Whether or not Larkin and Lacey need this standing is much less clear. Their pre-trial assertion paints them as free-speech warriors valiantly defending “offensive” and unpopular speech.” Conspicuously lacking from the assertion, as journalist Melissa Gira Grant pointed out on Twitter, are the phrases “prostitution” or “intercourse work;” there’s solely a glancing reference to “grownup promoting.”

Kaytlin Bailey, a former intercourse employee and host of The Oldest Career Podcast, says the longtime newspapermen at the moment are telling the unsuitable story.

“I had been of their sneakers, the story I’d be telling is the story of the survival of their customers,” she mentioned, referring to the intercourse staff who misplaced their supply of earnings when the positioning was taken offline.

“They consider themselves as free speech warriors, and I feel intercourse staff consider themselves as in a battle for survival.”

Within the years main as much as the trial, Lacey and Larkin have misplaced a few of their prominence. They don’t seem to be being prosecuted beneath FOSTA/SESTA, and whereas their case could pose an attention-grabbing loophole to Part 230, it’s not a direct problem. The free speech champions who rallied to their protection throughout earlier authorized fights have issued no statements upfront of their legal trial. And intercourse staff produce other considerations to fret about: a worldwide pandemic; the closely criticized and swiftly reversed resolution to ban porn from OnlyFans.

However Alexandra Yelderman, a visiting assistant professor on the College of Notre Dame Regulation Faculty, argues that the trial nonetheless holds critical significance—extra so than the legal prosecutions of RentBoy, myRedBook, and different grownup web sites. Whereas these websites solely marketed intercourse work, Yelderman mentioned, Backpage marketed different providers, reminiscent of housing, vehicles, and momentary jobs. And everybody must be involved that the federal government would jeopardize that sort of speech to get on the different stuff.

“What the Backpage takedown and prosecution is an instance of is the federal government’s willingness to throw all types of speech beneath the bus right here, so as to get at speech that—based on the indictment—services the crime of prostitution,” she mentioned.

“This isn’t a trafficking prosecution,” she added. “This can be a case the place allegations that [the founders] facilitated prostitution had been an impetus for the federal government to take intention at this whole swath of speech.”

After greater than three years, the trial will begin Wednesday in federal district courtroom in Phoenix. Backpage’s protection has already taken a sequence of pre-trial blows; amongst them, the decision to let Choose Susan Brnovich keep on the case, regardless of being married to an Arizona prosecutor who beforehand mounted an aggressive marketing campaign in opposition to the positioning. Among the many potential witnesses are Lacey and Larkin’s former lieutenant, who took a plea deal and flipped on them in 2018, and members of the family of ladies who died after being marketed on Backpage.

Not less than a number of supporters will even be within the courthouse—the intercourse employee collective Desiree Alliance has already mentioned it will likely be in attendance. And even Bailey, regardless of her hesitations, will probably be watching it carefully.

“We want guys just like the homeowners of Backpage,” she mentioned Monday. “We want people which are keen to protect the individuals which are partaking in survival work, which are doing issues well mannered society would quite they didn’t. As a result of well mannered society has demonstrated that they’re keen to see us die quite than coexist with us.” way of=rss | Founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin Go on Trial Over Intercourse Employee Advertisements


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