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Thursday, March 29, 2018 12:21 am

Congress deals blow to free speech

Former newspaper mogul gets blame, or credit

Michael Lacey, accused pimp, poses for a 2016 mugshot.
A couple years ago, I got an email from the blue.

It was from a lawyer for an old employer: Mike Lacey is creating a database of former employees, could you please provide your home address? I did. Days later, I received a $5,000 check and a request to help locate other folks. So I called an ex-colleague who isn’t getting rich working for a newspaper in St. Louis. Lacey’s handing out checks, want one? Nah, he told me. I don’t want his blood money.

Such are the feelings that Lacey, former newspaper magnate and accused pimp, stirs up. Stories about him are legend. The one I most remember is about the time he kicked a reporter in the nuts hard enough that bed rest was required. I believed it.

Just why Lacey gave away cash like licorice, and to folks he hadn’t seen in a decade or more if he ever had seen them at all, remains a mystery. At least one stunned beneficiary had been fired. Some suspected a tax dodge. I’m guessing Lacey did it because he could, a departure of degrees from what he once told New York magazine. “Look, a lot of people think I’m a prick,” he said. “But at least I’m a prick you can understand.”

That was in 2005, when Lacey acquired the Village Voice. It should have been the pinnacle of a career that began in 1970, when Arizona State University wouldn’t fly flags at half-mast after the Kent State massacre. Lacey dropped out and started a newspaper, and he built it into the nation’s largest chain of alternative weeklies, at one time owning 17 publications. I worked down a hallway from his office at Phoenix New Times in Arizona. He was the rare newspaper executive who never stopped writing stories, and he relished a good fight.

Lacey took on Joe Arpaio, the local sheriff, before it was fashionable. When Arpaio whined about the paper publishing his home address in small 12-point type, the next cover was taken up with an oversized drawing of a Christmas card addressed to Arpaio, with the house number and street prominently featured. The spat ended with the sheriff arresting Lacey, who donated more than half of a $3.75 million settlement to the journalism school at Arizona State University.

Outside Arizona, Lacey is best known as the man behind Backpage, an online marketplace for prostitutes that began as part of his newspaper business, which he ultimately gave up as Backpage, and bad PR, consumed him. Critics say that the website enabled the buying and selling of hundreds of thousands of underage sex slaves, trafficked like livestock to johns just a mouse click away. Others ask how anyone can know that there are 300,000 teen sex slaves in the United States – it’s not the sort of occupation one puts down on a tax return – and that the underage sex trade generates $32 billion a year across the globe.

Whether there are three teen prostitutes out there or 3 million, selling children is wrong, and we should do everything we can to stop it. Which is why I was floored in 2013, when Springfield police announced their first-ever online prostitution sting, years after cyberspace became the street of choice for streetwalkers. It’s way easier to post an online ad and let johns come to you than it is to stand on a street corner, hoping for the best. And if an underage prostitute is being advertised as such, why on earth wouldn’t undercover officers immediately answer such an ad and get a vulnerable person off the street?

Neither teen prostitution nor police indifference is new. Iris, the teen hooker portrayed by Jodie Foster in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, didn’t have the internet to advertise, and no one save a crazed Vietnam vet cared enough to rescue her. We should demand more from cops, not less from the internet, in the fight against underage sex trafficking.

This is not how politicians see things, and so the U.S. Senate, with Backpage as its poster child, last week voted 97-2 to punch a hole in a 1996 law that bars websites from being held liable for content created by outside parties. President Trump says he loves the bill, which cleared the House on a 388-25 vote. And so website proprietors who publish prostitution ads soon will invite lawsuits, imprisonment and fines.

This is the first crack in the 22-year-old statute that ensured speech would be unfettered on the internet, yet newspapers, broadcasters, Facebook, Google and other usual suspects were nearly silent as the bill gained momentum. Bill backers say there’s nothing to worry about, this is for folks like Lacey who do yucky things. Craigslist, after the Senate vote, removed all personal ads, no doubt to the consternation of the lovelorn who can’t afford match.com memberships. Backpage still has ads that include phone numbers and risqué photos: “Relax your mind, arouse your body at the #1 spa in Springfield. Sexy new girls,” one reads, just above help-wanted ads that include offers of free housing and requirements that applicants submit photos of themselves along with their age, weight and height. And so prostitution, shockingly, still flourishes.

Lacey invoked the First and Fifth amendments when he refused to testify before a Senate committee last year, not long after he was charged with pimping and money laundering in California. Like every journalist, he likely wanted to change the world, and he probably has. But not in the way he wanted.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


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