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A California judge said Wednesday that he is going to dismiss the pimping and other charges that California’s attorney general levied against the Backpage.com CEO and two of its former owners.
Carl Ferrer, 55, was charged (PDF) with pimping a minor, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping in connection to online advertisements posted on the online ads portal.
California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, alleged that advertisements amounted to solicitation of prostitution.
Ferrer and co-defendants were accused of making millions in profits off the backs of women and children forced into sexual servitude.
The charges were brought as Harris—who decried the site as “the world’s top online brothel”—was running for a US Senate seat, which she won last week.
In his defense, Ferrer argued that the First Amendment protected him from the charges, that he is not responsible for ads posted by third parties on the website, and that the Communications Decency Act prevents him from being liable for ads posted by third parties.
Ferrer, who was the subject of a three-year joint criminal investigation by authorities in Texas and California, also argued that neither he nor two Backpage controlling shareholders facing conspiracy charges had any “knowledge” of illegal ads.
Michael Bowman, a Sacramento Superior Court judge, agreed in a tentative ruling with much of the defense’s arguments while also siding in favor of Backpage former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin. (Tentative rulings are not final, but they give lawyers guidance on which way the court is likely to rule.)
“Congress struck a balance in favor of free speech in that Congress did not wish to hold liable 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.
Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this Court, to revisit,” the judge wrote (PDF).
A US Senate investigation into Dallas-based Backpage concluded that there was “substantial evidence that Backpage edits the content of some ads, including deleting words and images, before publication.
The record indicates that in some cases, these deletions likely served to remove evidence of the illegality of the underlying transaction.”
The judge wrote that the authorities “allege that Defendants ‘created’ content and are not entitled to immunity. However, on the face of the allegations, Defendants have, at most, republished material that was created by a third party.”
A year ago, the US Senate voted to hold Ferrer in contempt for refusing to comply with an investigation into online sex trafficking. He had claimed that the Web portal enjoyed a First Amendment right not to supply documents to the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations about how it reviews third-party ads posted to the site.
The US Supreme Court in September approved the subpoena, but Ferrer was arrested before he could comply.