At a Reason Foundation event in Phoenix, veteran newspapermen Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin regaled attendees with tales of federal terror in the Backpage case
With a mixture of gallows humor and outright defiance, veteran newspapermen Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin captivated the 100-plus libertarians who gathered in Phoenix on Friday, March 8, for the Reason Foundation’s annual Reason Weekend.
Joining a panel at the Arizona Biltmore that featured Reason magazine’s editor-at-large Matt Welch and associate editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Lacey and Larkin discussed their careers as anti-establishment journalists, their well-publicized battles with former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the “moral panic” of sex trafficking, and the federal case against them that stems from the government’s takedown of online listings giant Backpage.com.
They shared the ups and downs of a five-decade publishing adventure that began with the 1970 cofounding of Phoenix New Times, an Arizona State University campus rag that they eventually parlayed into Village Voice Media, a nationwide chain they sold to company insiders in 2012. They touched on their run-ins with law enforcement, including failed efforts by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the Arizona Department of Public Safety to set up Lacey on a bogus drug rap, and Sheriff Arpaio’s infamous 2007 raid on their homes after they disclosed the existence of a rigged grand jury that was looking to railroad them in retaliation for their critical coverage.
“They issued grand-jury subpoenas,” Lacey said of the local prosecutors doing Arpaio’s bidding. “They wanted the online identity of anyone who had looked at a [Phoenix New Times] story that was critical of the sheriff…. Welcome to Arizona.”
The outcry over the Arpaio-orchestrated bust forced the county attorney to nix the investigation. Lacey and Larkin sued for false arrest, then poured the entire $3.75 million settlement into the Frontera Fund, a nonprofit that supports groups that advocate for civil, human, and migrant rights — including the First Amendment — in Arizona.
But it was Lacey and Larkin’s current contretemps with the law that dropped the most jaws among the well-heeled crowd, made up of Reason Foundation members who donated at least $1,000 to the nonprofit over the past calendar year.
“At the very least, they’re taking it on the chin for the media industry and for the First Amendment, and they deserve our respect.” — Matt Welch, Reason editor-at-large
As Welch pointed out at the start, beneath their business-casual attire, Lacey and Larkin wore ankle monitors — a condition of their release last year on federal bonds of $1 million apiece, following their April 6, 2018, arrests on multiple federal charges of money laundering, conspiracy, and facilitating prostitution.
“They’re facing an incredible trial and a bunch of seizures of their assets over their role at Backpage.com, which was the main target of the kind of anti-sex-trafficking legal panic that we’re going to hear about,” Welch explained.
The panel discussed how adult classified advertising became a traditional revenue stream for alternative weeklies during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. With the rise of the internet, Craigslist came to dominate the classifieds market, leading Lacey and Larkin to counter with Backpage.
Both businesses incurred the wrath of politicians and a fundraising lobby that uses scare tactics and bogus statistics to gin up a moral panic over “sex trafficking” — a term that is frequently intertwined with consensual sex work.
“As it turns out, there’s been a huge concerted effort over the past two decades to deliberately conflate all prostitution or all sex work in general with sex trafficking,” Elizabeth Nolan Brown told the audience.
(There are significant differences between prostitution and sex trafficking. Prostitution involves commercial sex between or among consenting adults, and it is typically prosecuted on a local level. Sex trafficking, a subcategory of human trafficking, is a federal crime, defined by statute as causing a person under age eighteen to engage in commercial sex, or using force, fraud, or coercion to cause an adult to do the same.)
In 2010, Craigslist bowed to the pressure, shuttering its “adult services” section (though the upshot was that the ads migrated to other parts of the site). Lacey and Larkin, however, stood their ground, backed by court decisions at both the state and federal level affirming that the First Amendment insulates publishers of online classifieds against legal actions that stem from the content of those ads, regardless of their subject matter.
Lacey and Larkin sold Backpage in 2015, but they would pay for their unwillingness to yield to the powerful interests that created the sex-trafficking bogeyman.
Enter Kamala Harris. The current Democratic presidential contender went after Backpage at the tail end of her tenure as attorney general of California. Amid her campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2016, Harris had Lacey and Larkin arrested on pimping charges — charges that two state court judges would toss out.
“The people who were running Backpage basically thumbed their nose at us,” Harris told The Root in a recent interview. “And so I called for them to be shut down.” (Ironically, in that same interview, Harris revealed that she now favors the decriminalization of prostitution.)
The situation came to a head in 2018, when federal agents descended on Lacey’s and Larkin’s homes.
In the incongruous atmosphere of the Biltmore, the men described the raids in detail, noting that they were well aware of the bull’s-eyes on their backs and had offered to surrender themselves if and when the time came.
The feds took the shock-and-awe route instead, seizing the Backpage website and removing it from the internet — a questionable tactic, given the First Amendment — and rounding up Lacey, Larkin, and several codefendants as if they were cartel members.
Larkin was out of the country at the time — on a trip to Scotland that he’d informed federal authorities about ahead of time.
“They knew I wasn’t there, and in fact they pounded on the door with masks and machine guns,” he told the audience. “My eighteen-year-old daughter, who was asleep in her room, was awakened by them and terrorized.”
When Larkin’s plane landed, agents were waiting.
Lacey was at home preparing for a party to celebrate his recent nuptials when he looked up from his computer and into the barrel of a federal agent’s gun.
Also on the premises was Lacey’s new mother-in-law, who was in the shower in the guest room. When Lacey suggested that he be permitted to alert her to the situation so as to avoid “unnecessary drama,” the FBI agent demurred, opting to burst through the bedroom door with his handgun drawn.
Customarily, she showers naked,” Lacey quipped. “And she asked for a towel, at which point the guy who has the gun on her says, at volume 10, ‘When an FBI agent tells you to do something, you do it!’ She’s dragged at gunpoint out of the shower, okay?”
Lacey jokingly described how the agents proceeded to go through his mother-in-law’s purse “to see if there were any hidden sex workers. She is then marched out, and I am then paraded out in handcuffs in front of my mother-in-law. And they take me to prison where I spend the entire time thinking, ‘I wonder what kind of impact on a relationship with a mother-in-law this might have.'”
Both men now find themselves in a legal entanglement that is no laughing matter.
Larkin related how the U.S. Justice Department seized “all of our bank accounts, all of our brokerage accounts, our homes, our cars, wife’s jewelry, every asset that we have.”
The feds even seized funds set aside to pay their attorneys’ fees, Larkin explained, and prosecutors unsuccessfully attempted to have their First Amendment attorneys barred from the case.
“Why would they do that?” Larkin asked rhetorically. “Well, because we beat them every time in court over the last six or seven years. And we intend to prevail again here. It’s a very, very difficult fight. They have most of the cards, and they certainly have the guns. We’ve never broken the law. And we look forward to defending ourselves in court.”
The panel concluded with a round of applause from the attendees, who then surrounded the pair as if they were Hollywood celebs on a book tour.
After the event, Brown, who interviewed Lacey and Larkin at length about their predicament for a 2018 Reason profile, told Front Page Confidential that she thought it was “very impactful” for the audience to hear the two men tell their own stories.
Welch, who has been acquainted with Lacey for years, noted how the room fell silent as the men described what they’ve been through: “a roomful of libertarians transfixed” by a panel discussion.
“The lack of people rallying to their defense in the journalism industry is an outrage,” Welch said, particularly in light of the many battles the pair has fought to expand press freedom.
“At the very least, they’re taking it on the chin for the media industry and for the First Amendment, and they deserve our respect,” Welch said. “So we jumped at the chance to invite them.”