Backpage operators appear in court on pimping charges

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The operators of an international website that advertises escort services said Wednesday that they will challenge charges of trafficking prostitutes and pimping on First Amendment grounds.

Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, 55, and two others will contest the charges at a hearing next month, defense attorney Cristina Claypoole Arguedas told Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman as the three men made their first brief court appearances.

“The complaint and the theory of prosecution is flatly barred by the First Amendment and federal law,” Arguedas said outside the courtroom, referring to a federal law that blocks state actions against websites that distribute content created by others.

Ferrer is charged with pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping.

The former owners of the Village Voice in New York City, Michael Lacey, 68, and James Larkin, 67, are charged with conspiracy to commit pimping. The Arizona men, who also once owned the Phoenix New Times alternative weekly, are Backpage.com’s controlling shareholders, said California Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office filed the charges.

The three briefly appeared in a courtroom cage. A bail hearing was set for today.

The site advertises a wide range of services, but Harris charged that more than 90 percent of its revenue — amounting to millions of dollars each month — comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money. Court documents say affiliated sites including EvilEmpire.com and BigCity.com expanded Backpage.com’s share of online sex marketing.

By charging for the ads, Harris alleges the three men violated the state’s law against pimping, defined as making money off prostitutes or soliciting customers for prostitution. Some of the ads involve children under the age of 18, court documents say.

“Four courts have held they’re protected by the First Amendment. We’ve won that issue over and over again,” said another defense attorney, Jim Grant.