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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 cited federal laws involving freedom of speech while ruling that the state attorney general’s office cannot continue prosecuting Backpage.com’s CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin.
Bowman set a hearing 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, however, said 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.
“Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit,” Bowman wrote in his seven-page tentative ruling, emphasizing the final sentence in bold type.
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. Lacey and Larkin are the former owners of the Village Voice in New York City.
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.
That’s not enough for criminal charges against the site’s operators, Bowman decided:
” The victimization resulted from the third party’s placement of the ad, not because (of) Backpage profiting from the ad placement,” he wrote.
Harris spokeswoman Kristin Ford declined immediate comment and said the attorney general’s office will issue a statement after the hearing.
Backpage lawyer Liz McDougall said she and her clients were optimistic and declined further comment until after the hearing.