Entrepreneur, journalist, and First Amendment warrior James Larkin has died, just a little over a week before he was slated to stand trial for his role in running the web-classifieds platform Backpage. Larkin, 74, took his own life on Monday.
A native of Maricopa County, Arizona, he leaves behind a wife and six children, as well as a string of newspapers and a legacy of fighting for free speech.
With journalist Michael Lacey, Larkin built the Phoenix New Times from an anti-war student newspaper into a broad—and still-thriving—record of Maricopa County culture and politics. New Times didn't shy away from honest reporting on local law enforcement and power figures—including Sen. John McCain and his wife Cindy—or on controversial issues like abortion, immigrant rights, or the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.
"I had just come back from school in Mexico City and had been exposed to the Mexican student movement in the late 60's and early 70's and they were really serious radicals, serious revolutionaries, and a lot of them were killed in the ensuing years, murdered by the Mexican government. I realized that politics were serious," Larkin told Reason in 2018. "I felt that the paper…really had an opportunity to be politically powerful."
San Francisco Bay Guardian publisher Bruce B. Brugmann described Larkin and Lacey's aesthetic as "desert libertarianism on the rocks." They expanded their alt-weekly empire nationwide, eventually running 17 free papers, including the Miami New Times, Westword, the Dallas Observer, and The Village Voice.
The company stood out for being both highly profitable and a hard-hitting journalistic enterprise—a perfect blend of Larkin's business acumen, Lacey's brash indie-press M.O, and the pair's shared commitment to exposing and standing up to government malfeasance. Collectively, the papers and their staffers were nominated for more than 1,400 national writing awards, won one Pulitzer, and were finalists for the Pulitzer six other times.
"We weren't trying to curry favor," Larkin told Reason in 2018. And they took a "stubborn approach to bureaucrats telling us 'you can't do that' or 'we're not going to allow you to do that.' We knew what our rights were."
"Law enforcement, politicians, bureaucrats, regulatory types. They don't really understand the First Amendment," he added.
Among the court battles they fought—and won—was one over infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio demanding data on New Times readers; Arpaio was eventually forced to pay Larkin and Lacey a $3.75 million settlement, which they used to establish the immigrant rights organization Frontera Fund.
Another legal battle was waged over a 1971 New Times ad for a group that helped women in Arizona (where abortion was illegal) travel to California for the procedure. The case eventually helped invalidate Arizona's entire abortion ban.
In 2004, the pair launched Backpage.com as an online extension of the print classified ads that had supported their newspapers until Craigslist decimated print classified profits across the newspaper industry. Like Craigslist, Backpage became a popular digital platform for all sorts of user-generated ads, including a robust business in "adult" advertising.
By the time Larkin and Lacey bowed out of running Backpage in 2015, it had become a worldwide phenomenon. The business was highly profitable and also immensely popular among sex workers.
This earned Backpage—and its creators—the ire of activists, politicians, and prosecutors, who trafficked in myths and moral panic about sex work, sexual exploitation, and online platforms. Much as lawmakers and prosecutors have been doing with a wide swath of social media executives recently, they began demonizing Larkin, Lacey, and other Backpage executives as deliberate merchants of harmful content rather than people providing a platform for the speech of millions of individual users, most of whom were engaging in protected expression.
"We're the canary in the coal mine for the internet," Larkin told Reason in March.
Politicians and the press spread false narratives about Backpage—namely that it was an open forum for "child sex trafficking"—and about its founders' complicity in these alleged crimes. In reality, Backpage was utilized (and loved) by countless independent sex workers. The platform banned ads for anything illegal, including consensual adult prostitution; it also worked hard to keep ads posted by or featuring minors off the site and cooperated extensively with law enforcement when bad deeds were facilitated through Backpage ads.
"Even without a subpoena, in exigent circumstances such as a child rescue situation, Backpage will provide the maximum information and assistance permitted under the law," wrote federal prosecutors in a 2012 memo. This memo, and another from 2013, were the product of an extensive federal investigation into Backpage that included grand jury testimony, witness interviews, and reviewing more than 100,000 internal documents. "Backpage genuinely wanted to get child prostitution off of its site," the federal prosecutors concluded. "Witnesses have consistently testified that Backpage was making substantial efforts to prevent criminal conduct on its site, that it was coordinating efforts with law enforcement agencies and NCMEC [the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children], and that it was conducting its businesses in accordance with legal advice."
Nonetheless, in 2018, federal prosecutors seized Backpage. They began what has turned into a years-long federal prosecution of Larkin, Lacey, and other former executives, who stand accused of violating the Travel Act by facilitating prostitution.
The aforementioned memos, which were accidentally shared with the defendants as part of the discovery process, were ruled off-limits for defense use and placed under seal.
It was just one of many absurdities in an astoundingly unjust prosecution that has dragged on for over half a decade and now has a body count.
In April 2018, the government raided Larkin's and Lacey's homes and put Larkin and Lacey in jail. Upon their release, they were banned from leaving Maricopa County and forced to wear ankle monitors to ensure they wouldn't flee, even though both men had houses, families, and long-standing ties in the area.
Prosecutors seized all sorts of assets from Larkin and other defendants, including assets that had nothing to do with Backpage. For more than five years, they've been unable to get a hearing on whether this was justified. The civil asset forfeiture happened "without a hint of due process," Larkin told Reason in March."They don't want us to be able to have the tools to fight them."
The case finally went to trial in September 2021. But repeated references to sex trafficking—something the defendants are not charged with—by prosecutors and prosecution witnesses led to Judge Susan Brnovich declaring a mistrial.
A federal appeals court said the prosecution was open to trying again, however. For Larkin and the other defendants, this meant even more years of trying to scrape together money to pay defense lawyers (not to mention get by on) while being unable to access the life savings the government was holding. Some of the defendants eventually had to get public defenders.
Late last year, Larkin let his longtime lawyer go. The new judge on the case, Diane Humetewa, rejected requests to push back the trial while his new counsel caught up.
Meanwhile, prosecutors kept showing that they weren't willing to fight fair. Motions filed in June sought to stop the defendants "from referencing the First Amendment and 'free speech' at any time in the presence of the jury," from bringing up "the legality or illegality of any advertisement" that ran on Backpage.com, or from referencing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, among other things.
In late July, Humetewa partially rejected the First Amendment motion but granted most of the government's other motions seeking to limit how Larkin and the others could defend themselves.
In conversations with Reason, Larkin and Lacey have always been adamant that they are innocent and that the First Amendment protected Backpage and the speech it platformed. "We've never, ever broken the law. Never have, never wanted to," Larkin said back in 2018. "This isn't really—I know this is probably heresy—this isn't about sex work to me. This is about speech." Though of course, "sex workers have an absolute First Amendment right to post ads."
He reiterated that sentiment last March. "To me, the issue is, and always has been, the speech. We platformed legal speech. The government didn't like the speech, but it was legal," he said. "I know that we're innocent and this has been a political prosecution from day one."
He was still pledging to fight, but he seemed less confident than he did five years ago that having the truth and having the law on their side meant they would prevail.
"If the government decides to point its finger at you, there's really no question that they're going to try to ruin you," he said. And "given the system and the way it's set up," principled resistance could only go so far.
It's unclear what Larkin's suicide will mean for the other defendants in the impending trial, which is still scheduled to get underway on August 8.
In an order today, Judge Hemetawa wrote, "the Court, having become aware of Defendant Larkin's passing, will nonetheless expect the parties to prepare for trial to commence on the current scheduled date."
What is clear—at least to me, and surely to the many others who knew him—is that we are worse off for a world without Jim Larkin in it.
"I lost one of my heroes," says Stephen Lemons, who worked for the Phoenix New Times from 2003 through 2017 and now edits Front Page Confidential, a site published by Larkin and Lacey.
Larkin was a true journalist and a pioneering businessman, but "above all of his works, however, he was a family man," wrote Lacey in a statement on the website today. "I never saw my friend do a dishonest or dishonorable thing in his entire life. I had a four-decade friendship with a wonderful man. Now I have only his memory."
In the time I spent talking to Larkin over the years, I encountered a soft-spoken, sharp-witted, and highly principled man with a deep love for his family and pride in the Phoenix-area community he called home. He rescued abandoned succulents, opposed Arpaio's anti-immigrant agenda, couldn't stand hypocrisy, and revered the United States Constitution. He had the discipline and drive of a highly successful businessman and the spirit of a renegade journalist. It seems he never stopped being that anti-war kid who helped build a newspaper with his friends.
He was also someone beset by unnecessary and relentless persecution by the federal government. And now he is no longer around to enjoy the freedoms he championed for others.
"We've had people try to push us—politicians specifically—try to push us around all our lives, all our publishing lives," Larkin told me in a 2018 conversation about why he and Lacey kept platforming adult ads on Backpage even after so much pressure from politicians to stop. "So when we come up to this battle it's informed by that history. That's not ivory tower; it's real. All we've ever done is fight."
Larkin's personal fight may be over now. But his legacy should live on and serve as an inspiration for anyone who cares about civil liberties, free speech, and the freedom of the press.