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Children Don't Belong on the Backpage

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A child talking about being raped and sold on backpage.com is captured on a fuzzy video. Zooming in closer, we see a thirteen-year-old girl, telling her traumatic story. Hers should not be the only voice speaking out against child trafficking and the venues that make this horrific abuse against children possible. Village Voice Media (VVM) is one such venue; the Adult Section of its website, Backpage.com, is used by traffickers to facilitate child sex trafficking. VVM should immediately take this web platform out of the hands of those who buy and sell children. As a society, we must shun the attitude that there will always be a website selling underage girls and that shutting down Backpage only creates a hole to be filled. The message to VVM should be clear: no website will be tolerated that allows children to be trafficked.

Free speech matters critically to a free society, but free speech has never been thought critical to encompass facilitating criminal attacks on children. The adult ads section of backpage.com pockets a hefty $22 million each year as it turns a blind eye to the plight of girls posted on Backpage as goods for sale. Despite disputes over its legality, the more urgent question is ethics. Could we imagine recommending to our children that this is what they do with their lives: start or use websites that lead to the trafficking and misery of other kids?

Counsel for VVM says they are focused on trying to assist law enforcement, spending money to root out child trafficking. But what about the children used as bait to find the traffickers? Can we as a society tolerate this kind of collateral damage? VVM's efforts toward apprehending traffickers are to their credit, but the extent to which it's credited should turn on whether they are really sincere about trying to root out trafficking. If so, then they should divert the profits they make from these ads to enforce anti-trafficking laws and care for the victims, since no one should be profiting from the sale of children. Arguably, backpage.com is a "dual-use" product: one with beneficial (or not illegal) uses like the facilitation of sex between consenting adults and one with illegal uses like the commercial sexual exploitation of children. In many states, aiding and abetting laws are broad enough to cover dual use products like backpage.com when the distributor of the product knows about the illegal use. After 19 Senators and 220,000 signatures from Change.org demanded that the company stop facilitating child trafficking through its website, VVM cannot credibly claim ignorance.

VVM hides behind the free speech argument and the federal Communications Decency Act which shields service providers from third party criminal activity. This scenario occurs in the labor trafficking context as well. For example, a prominent hotel chain in Florida tried to absolve itself of liability when it knew that young women were working without wages, in sub-par living conditions, and lacking proper immigration documents. Their argument was willful ignorance. They claimed that they don't hire their maids; instead, they hire a subcontractor that hires the maids. Such willful ignorance occurs in the agricultural industry as well. A company doesn't ask questions from an exceedingly low bid based ultimately on trafficking, and that's where there should be liability.

Some states have recently decided to criminalize reckless disregard. When a corporation, motivated by the bottom line, chooses not to exert appropriate scrutiny and then wants to wash its hands of liability, there must be consequences. Willful ignorance is now being criminalized in some jurisdictions, and Backpage is the poster child for this kind of corporate behavior. The First Amendment is not intended to protect speech that is meant to solicit or promote unlawful behavior. It is shameful that VVM hides behind the thin veneer of constitutional protection to engage in conduct with no socially redeeming value -- indeed, conduct that is affirmatively destructive to our most vulnerable population. VVM's constitutional posturing aside, an ethical choice remains to be made. VVM can cling to its legal formalism, or it can do what Craigslist and other internet providers have done: shut down their adult ads section.

Village Voice Media has only one moral choice: take sex trafficking out of its business model. If not, Eric Holder and the Department of Justice need to step in and take action on our behalf. After all, as citizens of this country, we can choose not to tolerate willful ignorance that enables the buyers to commit child rape. We can choose to demand that Backpage not have a successor because advertising little girls for sex will no longer be tolerated. We can and should add our voices to say that enough is enough.

Wendi Adelson, immigration attorney, author of This is Our Story, and clinical professor at Florida State University College of Law.