Trial of publishers in U.S. offers reminder of Canadian sex workers’ struggles for justice

The kingpins of Backpage.com are going on trial in the United States


Sex workers have fought for many years in Canada for the same types of labour rights as other workers.
Charlie Smith

Sex workers have fought for many years in Canada for the same types of labour rights as other workers.

Today, the Daily Beast is reporting that the kingpins of Backpage.com are going on trial. And according to the headline, sex workers may pay the price.

Michael Lacey and James Larkin were partners in Phoenix New Times, which eventually grew to 17 alternative weeklies in what was called Village Voice Media.

After selling this company, they retained a classified-listings company called Backpage.com, which included adult-oriented ads.

Their legal troubles arose when they wouldn’t take down these ads, which court rulings had ruled were protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution.

In 2016, then California attorney general Kamala Harris, now the vice president of the United States, supported the arrest of Lacey. At the time, she was running for the U.S. Senate.

The charge didn’t stick because of the First Amendment and also because of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It deems the owners of user-generated-content websites are immune from culpability for what those users post under most circumstances.

But the legal troubles popped up again nearly two years later when the FBI swooped down on Lacey and Larkin for the ads on Backpage.com. They and four others were charged with dozens of counts of facilitating prostitution, money laundering and conspiracy through Backpage.com.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The shutting down of Backpage.com was greeted with horror by some sex workers, who worried about the impact on their safety and livelihoods.

Those concerns are being reiterated today in the Daily Beast.

Meanwhile, Lacey and Larkin have issued a statement describing the prosecution as “epic government overreach.”

“We have the knowledge that we are not guilty and the determination not to bow before the authoritarian mindset that demanded we suppress constitutionally-protected speech and now prosecutes us for having refused to do so,” they stated.

In Canada, the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform has lobbied without success against a federal law banning the advertising of sexual services, which aren’t defined in the legislation.

Last March, the alliance and several individuals filed a constitutional challenge alleging that several sections of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act infringe on sex workers’ legal rights to security of the person personal autonomy, life, liberty, free expression, freedom of association and equality.

“We have been patiently waiting on the empty promises of parliamentarians to uphold the rights of sex workers who are increasingly experiencing the impacts of these laws, and the heavy hand of law enforcement,” alliance national coordinator Jenn Clamen said at the time. “This government has spent five years paying lip service to human rights and to feminism, and it’s time for them to act.”

In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three prostitution laws on the basis that they violated sex workers’ charter rights to security of the person. These laws prohibited keeping a common bawdy house, living off the avails of prostitution and communicating in public for the sale of sex. 

The communicating law also violated sex worker’s charter right to freedom of expression, according to the ruling.

The following year, the Conservative government under Stephen Harper introduced the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which outlawed the advertising and sale of sexual services in Canada.

In 2020, an Ontario judge ruled that the advertising ban violated sex workers’ charter right to freedom of expression.

Because the federal government did not appeal that decision, it hasn’t had an effect across Canada.

So far in the federal election campaign, none of the major federal leaders has spoken up for the charter rights of sex workers. None has promised to amend the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act to bring it in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms if their party forms the next government.

This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight.

 @charliesmithvcr

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