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Michael Lacey and James Larkin are accused of facilitating prostitution in a case with far-reaching implications. But the U. Whom the judge sides with will determine whether Lacey and Larkin are locked away for decades, and whether online sex work—and possibly online expression, in general—will ever look the same again. Until their homes were raided and their assets seized, Larkin and Lacey were, in many regards, an internet success story. After founding the Phoenix New Times as pugnacious college journalists, the pair went on to purchase more than 17 local magazines across the United States, amassing the largest chain of alt-weeklies in the country.

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Just as print revenues started to fade, they had the idea to digitize the classified in the back of their papers and put them on a website: Back. But while the earnings piled up, so did the horror stories: women and girls allegedly held against their will and trafficked by pimps, friends, or family members using Back as a marketing tool.

One woman said she was raped more than 1, times after being advertised on the site as a teenage runaway. Back became a white whale for ambitious young prosecutors looking to prove their chops, and for politicians hoping to muster goodwill in an election year.

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Dozens of alleged victims filed civil suits. None of it stuck.

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When then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed new charges against the founders that same month, a judge dismissed them again. The only legal challenge that seemed to stick was a suit by three Washington women who claimed they were trafficked via Back when they were as young as 13 years old.

The state Supreme Court ruled that the case could go forward, and Back eventually settled. At the same time, however, the founders unwittingly avoided criminal prosecution in the same state—in part thanks to their own cooperation with authorities. According to documents published by Reasonfederal prosecutors in the Western District of Washington reviewed more thandocuments and interviewed more than a dozen witnesses in in an attempt to bring a case against Back, but failed to find a smoking gun. In fact, according to a memo written by two assistant U. To date, the investigation has revealed neither.

The U. Senate, which had been investigating Back for years, successfully subpoenaed millions of s of internal documents and published them in a highly damaging report in Among the documents were internal s that the government claims show Back employees intentionally removed words from advertisements that suggested prostitution—and even more damningly, child prostitution—and published them anyway, getting rid of the evidence but not the crime.

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A little over a year later, in a indictment that pulled heavily from the Senate investigation, the U. Department of Justice hit Lacey, Larkin, and five other Back employees with 93 counts, including several kinds of money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. Larkin and Lacey have been on house arrest ever since.

Supporters point out that the founders and other employees were never charged with trafficking—most of the charges stem from the s-era Travel Act, which prohibits businesses from conducting illegal activity like gambling and prostitution across state lines. But the indictment also provided documents that strongly suggest employees of Back had seen, and in some cases, removed, evidence of underage girls being advertised on their site. Attorneys for Larkin and Lacey argue that they were simply publishing advertisements for escort and massage services, as alt-weeklies have done since their inception.

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They claim this is a First Amendment case, and that requiring Back to reject simply suggestive of prostitution would be an illegal infringement on free speech—an odorous idea to the founders of a mud-slinging independent journalism empire. Sex Workers and their supporters rallied in Minnesota in to protest a law enforcement crackdown on Back. Like the trials of so many adult website owners—Jeffrey Hurant of RentBoy and Eric Omuro of myRedBook among them—the prosecution of Larkin and Lacey could have been a fleeting headline; a mere notch in the belt of aggressive DOJ prosecutors.

In a statement celebrating the ing of the bill, House sponsor Rep. Advocates related stories of sex workers who were thrust into the arms of pimps in order to find work, or back into abusive relationships for want of somewhere to stay. Even the federal government admitted that the law had unintended consequences.

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As time went on, the restrictions around online sex work grew tighter and tighter. In MayReddit removed several sex work discussion forums; in December of that year, Tumblr removed all explicit content from its site.

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Whether Larkin and Lacey want this status is less clear. Kaytlin Bailey, a former sex worker and host of The Oldest Profession Podcast, says the longtime newspapermen are now telling the wrong story. In the years leading up to the trial, Lacey and Larkin have lost some of their prominence.

The free speech champions who rallied to their defense during legal fights have issued no statements in advance of their criminal trial. And sex workers have other concerns to worry about: a global pandemic; the heavily criticized and hastily reversed decision to ban porn from OnlyFans. But Alexandra Yelderman, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, argues that the trial still holds serious ificance—more so than the criminal prosecutions of RentBoy, myRedBook, and other adult websites.

While those sites only advertised sex work, Yelderman said, Back advertised other services, such as housing, cars, and temporary jobs.

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And everyone should be concerned that the government would jeopardize that kind of speech to get at the other stuff. After more than three years, the trial will start Wednesday in federal district court in Phoenix.

At least a few supporters will also be in the courthouse—the sex worker collective Desiree Alliance has already said it will be in attendance. And even Bailey, despite her hesitations, will be watching it closely.

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Emily Shugerman Gender Reporter. Published Sep. Michael Lacey testifies before the U. Senate in James Larkin, Back co-founder.

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