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James Larkin, publisher of Backpage and Free Speech Warrior, has died

Businessman, journalist and First Amendment warrior James Larkin has died, just over a week before he was to stand trial for his role in running the Web ad platform Backpage. Larkin, 74, took his own life on Monday.

A native of Maricopa County, Arizona, he leaves behind a wife and six children, as well as a series of newspapers and a legacy of fighting for free speech.

With journalist Michael Lacey, Larkin built the Phoenix New Times from an anti-war student newspaper to an extensive—and still thriving—record of Maricopa County culture and politics. New Times did not shy away from honest reporting on local law enforcement and power figures, including His. John McCain and his Ms. Cindy—or on controversial issues such as abortion, immigrant rights or 1976 murder of Arizona Republic journalist Don Bolles

“I had just come back from school in Mexico City and had been exposed to the Mexican student movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s and they were serious radicals, serious revolutionaries, and many of them were killed in the years that followed, killed . by the Mexican government. I realized that politics was serious,” Larkin said reason in 2018. “I felt that the newspaper … really had an opportunity to be politically powerful.”

San Francisco Bay Guardian editor Bruce B. Brugmann described Larkin and Lacey’s aesthetic as “desert libertarianism on the rocksThey expanded their alternative weekly empire across the country, eventually publishing 17 free newspapers, including the Miami New Timeyes Westwordthe Dallas Observeri The Voice of the people.

The company stood out as a highly profitable and hard-hitting journalistic venture – a perfect blend of Larkin’s business acumen, Lacey’s brazen independent press MO and the pair’s shared commitment to exposing and confronting government embezzlement. Collectively, the papers and their staff were nominated for more than 1,400 national writing awards, won a Pulitzer and were Pulitzer finalists six more times.

“We weren’t trying to curry favor,” Larkin said reason in 2018. And they took a “stubborn approach to bureaucrats telling us ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘we’re not going to let you do that’. We knew what our rights were.”

“Law enforcement, politicians, bureaucrats, regulatory types. They really don’t understand the First Amendment,” he added.

Among the court battles they fought—and won—was one against notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio who sought data on New Times readers; Arpaio was eventually forced to pay Larkin and Lacey a $3.75 million settlement, which they used to establish the immigrant rights organization Frontera Fund.

Another legal battle was fought during a 1971 New Times advertisement for a group helping women in Arizona (where abortion was illegal) travel to California for the procedure. The case ultimately helped invalidate Arizona’s entire abortion ban.

In 2004, the couple launched as an online extension of the print classifieds that had supported their newspapers until Craigslist decimated the profits of print classifieds in the newspaper industry. Like Craigslist, Backpage became a popular digital platform for all kinds of user-generated ads, including a robust business in “adult” advertising.

By the time Larkin and Lacey left Backpage in 2015, it had become a global phenomenon. The business was very profitable and also immensely popular among sex workers.

This earned Backpage, and its creators, the ire of activists, politicians and prosecutors, who peddled myths and moral panics about sex work, sexual exploitation and online platforms. As much as legislators and prosecutors have been doing With a wide range of social media executives recently beginning to demonize Larkin, Lacey and other Backpage executives as willful peddlers of harmful content rather than people who provide a platform for the speech of millions of individual users, the most of which were dedicated to protected expression. .

“We’re the canary in the coal mine for the Internet,” Larkin said reason In March

Politicians and the press spread false narratives about Backpage—namely, that it was an open forum for “child sex trafficking”—and about the complicity of its founders in these alleged crimes. Actually, Backpage it was used (and loved) by countless independent sex workers. The platform banned ads for anything illegal, including consensual adult prostitution; also worked hard to keep ads posted by or with minors off the site and cooperated extensively with law enforcement when bad actions were facilitated through Backpage ads.

“Even without a subpoena, in exigent circumstances, such as a child rescue situation, Backpage will provide the maximum information and assistance permitted by law.” wrote federal prosecutors in a 2012 memo. That memo, and another from 2013, were the product of an extensive federal investigation into Backpage that included grand jury testimony, witness interviews and the review of more than 100,000 internal documents. “Backpage really wanted to remove child prostitution from its site,” federal prosecutors concluded. “Witnesses have consistently testified that Backpage was making substantial efforts to prevent criminal conduct on its site, that it was coordinating efforts with law enforcement agencies and NCMEC. [the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children]and that he was conducting his business in accordance with legal advice.”

However, in 2018, federal prosecutors seized Backpage. They began what has become a years-long federal prosecution against Larkin, Lacey and other former executives, who are accused of violating the Travel Act by facilitating prostitution.

The aforementioned memos, which were accidentally shared with the defendants as part of the discovery process, were off-limits for defense use and were placed under seal.

It was just one of many absurdities in a shockingly unfair prosecution that has dragged on for more than half a decade and now has a body count.

In April 2018, the government raided the homes of Larkin and Lacey and put Larkin and Lacey in jail. Upon their release, they were barred from leaving Maricopa County and required to wear ankle monitors to ensure they did not flee, although both men had homes, families and longstanding ties to the area

Prosecutors seized all kinds of assets from Larkin and other defendants, including assets that had nothing to do with Backpage. For over five years, they have been unable to get a hearing on whether this was warranted. The civil asset forfeiture occurred “without any hint of due process,” Larkin said reason in March “They don’t want us to have the tools to fight them.”

The case was finally tried in September 2021. But the repeated references to sex trafficking, which are the defendants. no accused of—by prosecutors and prosecution witnesses brought to Judge Susan Brnovich declaring the judgment null and void.

A federal appeals court he said the prosecution was open to trying again, despite this. For Larkin and the other defendants, that meant even more years of trying to scrape together money to pay defense attorneys (not to mention survive) without access to the government’s life savings. Some of the defendants eventually had to seek public defenders.

Late last year, Larkin let his longtime attorney go. The new judge in the case, Diane Humetewa, rejected requests to push back the trial while her new lawyer caught up.

Meanwhile, the prosecutors continued to show that they were not willing to fight fair. Motions presented in June intended to stop the accused “from making reference to the First Amendment and ‘free speech’ at any time in the presence of the jury,” to raising “the legality or illegality of any advertisement” that was posted on, or to reference to Section 230 of Communications Decency. Acting, among other things.

In late July, Humetewa partially denied the First Amendment motion, but granted most of the government’s other motions that sought to limit how Larkin and the others could defend themselves.

In conversations with reason, Larkin and Lacey have always been adamant that they are innocent and that the First Amendment protected Backpage and the speech it offered. “We have never, ever broken the law. We never wanted to, we never wanted to,” Larkin said in 2018. “That’s not really, I know that’s probably heresy, it’s not about sex work for me. That it’s about speech.” Although, of course, “sex workers have an absolute First Amendment right to run ads.”

He reiterated that sentiment last March. “For me, the issue is, and always has been, speech. We came up with legal speech. The government didn’t like the speech, but it was legal,” he said. “I know we are innocent and this has been a political prosecution from day one.”

He still vowed to fight, but seemed less confident than five years ago that having the truth and the law on his side would mean they would prevail.

“If the government decides to point the finger at you, there’s really no question that they’re going to try to screw you over,” he said. And “given the system and the way it’s set up,” principled resistance could only go so far.

It is unclear what Larkin’s suicide will mean for the other defendants in the upcoming trial, which is still scheduled to begin on August 8.

In an order today, Judge Hemetawa wrote, “The Court, having learned of the death of Defendant Larkin, expects the parties to prepare for trial to begin on the current scheduled date.”

What is clear, at least to me, and surely to many others who knew him, is that we are worse off for a world without Jim Larkin.

“I lost one of my heroes,” says Stephen Lemons, who worked for the Phoenix New Times from 2003 to 2017 and now edits Cover page confidentiala site published by Larkin and Lacey.

Larkin was a true journalist and pioneering businessman, but “above all his works, however, he was a family man,” Lacey wrote in a statement on the website today. “I never saw my friend do a dishonest or dishonorable thing in his entire life. I had a four-decade friendship with a wonderful man. Now I only have his memory.”

In the time I spent talking with Larkin over the years, I found him to be a soft-spoken, sharp-witted and very principled man with a deep love for his family and pride in the Phoenix area community which he called home. He rescued abandoned succulents, opposed Arpaio’s anti-immigrant agenda, could not stand hypocrisy and revered the US Constitution. He had the discipline and drive of a highly successful businessman and the spirit of a renegade journalist. It seems he never stopped being that anti-war guy who helped build a newspaper with his friends.

He was also someone besieged by the unnecessary and relentless persecution of the federal government. And now he is no longer able to enjoy the freedoms he defended for others.

“We’ve had people try to push us, politicians specifically, try to push us all our lives, all our publishing lives,” Larkin told me in a 2018 conversation about why he and Lacey continued to run ads for adults on Backpage even after that. a lot of pressure from politicians to stop. “So when we come to this battle, it’s informed by that history. This is not an ivory tower; it’s real. All we’ve ever done is fight.”

Larkin’s personal feud may be over now. But his legacy should live on and serve as an inspiration to anyone who cares about civil liberties, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.


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