Backpage.com founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey claim the charges against them for operating an adult-sex site were politically motivated. “This is the biggest speech battle in America right now,” said Lacey in an interview with Reason.
Backpage.com founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey claim they are the victims of politicians and describe the case against them for operating their site, which has been called a market for illicit prostitution, as an attack on free speech.
They singled out Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and his wife Cindy as the leaders of a vendetta against them.
“Part of the reason this has really worked is because you have Cindy and John McCain involved in this,” Larkin said in a lengthy interview with Reason.“And they see an opportunity to even a score. We think there’s no question that this is partly their doing.”
A federal grand jury in Arizona indicted Lacey, 69, and Larkin, 68, along with five others, on charges including facilitating prostitution and money laundering in April. Both men are confined by court order to Maricopa, AZ., and are being monitored by electronic homing devices. A trial is scheduled in 2020.
In the interview, Larkin insisted: “We’ve never, ever broken the law. Never have, never wanted to. This isn’t really—I know this is probably heresy—this isn’t about sex work to me. This is about speech.”
“This is the biggest (free) speech battle in America right now,” added Lacey. “The First Amendment isn’t about protecting the rights of the McLaughlin Group to speak their mind on television.
“This is specifically what the fuck it’s about. Unpopular speech. Dangerous speech. Speech that threatens the norm. Not only do we have that right, our readers have that right. The [Backpage] posters have that right.
“We spent 40 years doing journalism, groundbreaking journalism, and they want to take all that away,” he said, claiming it was because “they don’t like who exercised their constitutional rights to use our advertising platform. And that has no goddamn bearing. The law doesn’t say, ‘You get to pick and choose who exercises their constitutional rights by whether or not you like their lifestyle.’ It’s just incredible.”
Thee two men talked to Reason about their history as free press warriors who began taking swings at politicians in the early 1970s, starting with their anti-war newspaper Phoenix New Times.
The paper refused to endorse candidates, and “didn’t line up with the establishments in any city that we were involved in,” Larkin told Reason. “And that’s come back to haunt us.”
The New Times took “ample swipes” at Sheriff Joe Arpaio for violating the constitutional rights of prisoners, as well as then-Arizona States Attorney Janet Nepolitano, who scuttled a federal lawsuit against Arpaio for excessive brutality and ignoring inmate medical needs, reports Reason. The New Times also published stories about the McCains’ involvement with white-collar fraudster Charles Keating, outed Cindy as an opioid addict, and reported on her father’s connections to mobsters..
Larkin and Lacey are now confined by ankle bracelet to Maricopa County, AZ, by court order. The FBI’s seizure of Backpage.com in April followed a years-long battle with political and legal heavyweights, including the National Association of Attorneys General, Senator Kamala Harris, John and Cindy McCain, and immigration hardliner Joe Arpaio.
See also: Why Cracking Down on Sex Sites Won’t Stop Traffickers
In the interview, Larkin described the early legal battles that cemented the pair’s “stubborn approach to bureaucrats telling us ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘we’re not going to allow you to do that.”
In 1971, the New Times faced misdemeanor charges after publishing information on out-of-state abortion services at a time when it was illegal to get an abortion in Arizona. They won a Supreme Court appeal; the decision also found the state’s abortion statutes unconstitutional, reports Reason. The following year, the New Times won a censorship suit against the University of Arizona for restricting the dissemination of the paper.
“We knew what our rights were to distribute opinion and news,” Larkin told Reason.
When the pair created Backpages.com in 2004, Larkin saw it as a continuation of the kind of classified advertising the company had run since its early days. “We’ve had adult advertising from 1970,” he told Reason.
Backpage cooperated with law enforcement sources to help find missing persons and build cases against dangerous predators. By 2011, staff members were replying to around 100 records subpeonas a month, according to the magazine.
“[Backpage has] been cooperative with anti-trafficking efforts,” Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a criminologist and victim advocate, told The Crime Report. “They responded to subpoenas and facilitated investigations. There is no empirical evidence or criminological theory to suggest that Backpage facilitated prostitution, much less sex trafficking.”