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Missouri Attorney General Hawley Files Desperate and Deceptive Motion to Dismiss Backpage Lawsuit

AG Josh Hawley's "new evidence" against the U.S. company is actions carried out by foreign contractors for foreign websites.

@AGJoshHawley/Twitter@AGJoshHawley/TwitterMissouri Attorney General Josh Hawley claimed he has "new evidence" showing that the classifieds site "Backpage has directly and actively promoted illegal sex trafficking."

But the only thing new is Hawley's level of desperation and deceit.

Hawley, who was elected attorney general last November and has U.S. Senate ambitions, is the latest in a long line of state law-enforcement authorities to seek attention by scapegoating an online ad platform and subjecting it to unconstitutional demands. Craigslist was the test case, but Backpage has become the enduring target of state prosecutors because it hasn't been hesitant to fight back—and in almost all cases, win.

Despite the hysterical antics from elected officials, there has never been any evidence that Backpage leaders knowingly promoted forced or underage prostitution, nor that they've behaved in ways that would exclude them from the immunity provided to open publishing platforms under federal law.

Among the "new" evidence that Hawley submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri is a January report from the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Despite the senators having access to all of the internal Backpage data and hosting a theatrical in-person inquiry, they found nothing sufficient to spur a criminal investigation or any charges.

Hawley also submitted the transcript of an audio recording seized from Philippines company Avion, in which an Avion employee contacts a London sex worker. Hawley also played the call reporters at a press conference.

What does not get so much as a mention in Hawley's motion is that this call and all of the adult-ad generation done for Backpage involved only non-U.S. employees of Avion advertising on non-U.S. platforms. None of it has any bearing on his current case.

A state attorney general cannot attempt to prosecute foreign contractors for ads created and posted in foreign countries. And it is legal for Backpage contractors to generate adult ads abroad, where the rules governing web-publishing platforms and legal liability for content vary (and prostitution in certain forms may be legal).

Hawley's actions here should be seen for what they are: a sneaky attempt to build credibility in his illegal crusade.

Not long after he took office in January 2017, Hawley attempted to compel Backpage to surrender a trove of internal files and information. His order was not part of any criminal investigation but rather a civil investigative demand—a kind of subpoena attorneys general use to investigate potential consumer fraud.

In a letter to Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, Hawley wrote "the Attorney General of the State of Missouri believes it to be in the public interest that an investigation be made to ascertain whether [agents of Backpage.com] have engaged in or are engaging in any merchandising practices declared to be unlawful" under the state's merchandising practices law.

Backpage lawyers responded with a motion to block Hawley from enforcing the order and "from further pursuing or threatening other action against Backpage. It was "based on Backpage's statutory immunity from state law claims based on its activities as an online publisher and distributor of third-party content, and on Backpage's constitutional rights under the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments."

Hawley fired back this week with a motion to dismiss Backpage's suit and a public relations offensive. "I have filed a motion against Backpage.com containing explosive new revelations," the attorney general tweeted from his official account on Tuesday.

"My message to Backpage is this: The truth is coming for you," stated Hawley in a press release. "We have evidence including audio recordings, photos and various documents. You cannot hide from the truth. And I will not stop until the full truth about Backpage's involvement in trafficking is exposed and those responsible are held to account."

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch later that day dutifully reported Hawley had audio of "a woman who works for Backpage.com ... speaking to a woman who has posted an ad elsewhere offering underage sex. The Backpage employee tries to get her to post the ad to Backpage."

Not only was the caller not a Backpage employee, the person posting the ad is underage only in Hawley's imagination. On the call, an Avion employee talks to someone who was advertising their services on the U.K. classified-ad site Viva Street under the heading "Sexy, Naturally Super-Busted, Discreet in South Kensington Lolita." Hawley claims that this ad must have been for a child because Lolita "is of course ... a universal word for for the commercial sex trafficking of underage victims."

Hawley has provided no evidence to back up the absurd assertion. In the real world, "Lolita" is one of many terms—like "new" and "barely legal"—that young adult sex workers employ to market themselves.

Viva Street, like Backpage, requires all ad posters to be at least 18-years-old and watches for images that appear to contain underage individuals. Avion employees were given ample instruction from Backpage to avoid ads featuring minors or other illegal content.

Hawley also presents no other evidence that suggests the sex-trafficking of minors.

Documents provided by Hawley to the court do show that Avion contractors were assigned several roles, with some soliciting (G-rated) job ads from competitors sites in the U.S. and abroad; some soliciting escort and erotic-massage ads from and for foreign websites; and some screening ads for prohibited words or terms (such as direct references to sex for money). This is similar to what reporters from The Washington Post reported in July, in an article Hawley cites in his argument. (For some scrutiny of the Post findings, see my earlier post.)

Avion agents were assigned to scour Backpage competitor's sites in countries across Europe for posts fit to transfer to Backpage domains in these countries. Agents were to copy ad-content from the the other sites into a draft Backpage ad, then email the ad's poster with an option to activate their first Backpage ad for free.

As with previous prosecutorial overreach aimed at Backpage, Hawley has been using the salacious nature of some of these ads as a stand-in for actually proving that they represented anything illegal (or actionable by state prosecutors). Alas, this approach often works on the public (and press), who are primed with "human trafficking" and then presented with legal sex-work ads as evidence. Luckily, our courts have not been so easily confused thus far; let's hope Missouri's Eastern District court follows suit.

Photo Credit: @AGJoshHawley/Twitter

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  • Number 7||

    Lolita "is of course ... a universal word for for the commercial sex trafficking of underage victims."

    Well, Humbert did cross state lines with the intention of immoral acts with a minor so.... close enough.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Desperate And Deceptive Motion was my nickname in college.

  • pan fried wylie||

    It ain't the size of the boat, it's the motion of the desperation.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I think Desperate and Deceptive is every college's nickname.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Is *that* what the D&D club was really about?

  • pan fried wylie||

    to investigate potential consumer fraud

    Which ought to require an allegation of fraud from a consumer, one would think. He's got the complaint handy, right? I just assume there wasn't enough space on the web to post it.

  • Rhywun||

    It's called being a "go-getter".

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    If bitches be having sex, bitches be trafficked. Why is this so hard to understand?

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Some enjoy the traffic. Some even like a train...

  • Bob K||

    I certainly enjoy Steve Winwood. And Patrick Monahan is a distant cousin, though I'm not a fan.

  • Jerryskids||

    Maybe Hawley can order an underage hooker from Backpage and then go after them for false advertising. Or maybe that's what's got his knickers in a twist - they misunderstood his order for 20 8-year old girls.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This guy sounds like senator material for sure.

  • Sevo||

    "...None of it has any bearing on his current case..."

    Statist arm-waving, hoping misdirection will suffice for facts.
    Paging Tony! Paging turd! Your numbers have been called.

  • Take that cloud!||

    Might be time for a new onion.

  • Rich||

    A state attorney general cannot attempt to prosecute foreign contractors for ads created and posted in foreign countries.

    Bullshit. Even *I* can *attempt* it.

  • chemjeff||

    Yup. This is grandstanding for the sake of his Senate candidacy.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Hawley, who was elected attorney general last November and has U.S. Senate ambitions

    So, he's been the AG of Missourah for less than a year and already has his eyes set on higher office in his never ending pursuit of MOAR POWER. FFS, is it too much that these power hungry fucksticks stay in one post long enough to build up a record for the voters to judge them on?

    Oh wait, nevermind. I'm guessing that's kind of the point.

  • Crusty Juggler - Hero||

    Hawley has provided no evidence to back up the absurd assertion.

    Hawley also presents no other evidence that suggests the sex-trafficking of minors.

    Feels > facts.

  • Memory Hole||

    The judge should sanction that low life motherfucker for filing that frivolous shit and make him publicly apologize for abusing the power of his office.

  • Longtobefree||

    Proof positive AG should not be an elected position.
    State AG pursuing international legal business = senate for sure.
    BTW, this joker is pretending to be a republican (?)

  • Hank Phillips||

    The striking thing is that the lay looters have become--except for baldness, wrinkles and jowls--indistinguishable from God's Own Prohibitionists. Nowadays, the Junior Antisex League is flanked by a Senior Antisex League, and both agree on the initiation of deadly force as THE final solution to someone, somewhere, being happy.

  • ||

    Hawley's actions here should be seen for what they are: a sneaky attempt to build credibility in his illegal crusade.

    AKA grandstanding/panic mongering by a politician.

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