SACRAMENTO, CA (AP) – A California judge tentatively rejected pimping charges Wednesday against the operators of a major international website that advertises escort services.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman said the state attorney general’s office cannot continue prosecuting Backpage.com’s CEO Carl Ferrer and two former owners.
Bowman set a hearing on his ruling later Wednesday before making his decision final.
The men were charged by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who called Backpage.com “the world’s top online brothel.”
The judge agreed with Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin that the website’s operators are protected by federal law related to freedom of speech.
Harris lacked authority to bring the charges because the federal Communications Decency Act, as a way of promoting free speech, grants immunity to website operators for content posted by users, the judge wrote in his seven-page tentative ruling.
“Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit,” Bowman wrote, emphasizing the final sentence in boldface.
Ferrer, 55, was charged with pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping. Lacey, 68, and Larkin, 67, both from Arizona, were charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
Harris, a Democrat who was elected to the U.S. Senate last week, alleged that more than 90 percent of Backpage revenue – millions of dollars each month – comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.