Gregoire signs bill insisting sex ad sellers check ID

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill into law Thursday that goes after classified advertising companies that don’t demand ID to verify the age of people in sex-related ads published in print or online.

The measure was one of more than 100 bills that Gregoire pledged to sign into law Thursday, and one of a dozen related to sex trafficking.

Publishers who “don’t want to give up the despicable profits that they are receiving” must “make sure that our minors are not being sold for sex on their sites or face the consequences,” Gregoire said.

The law says that classified advertising company representatives who publish or cause publication of sex-related ads peddling children are subject to criminal prosecution. Proof of a good-faith attempt to verify the age of the advertised person is considered a defense under the law.

A primary target of the new law is Backpage.com, which operates a robust online clearinghouse for sex escorts.

Backpage.com’s parent company, Village Voice Media, owns 13 alternative weekly newspapers around the country, including Seattle Weekly. Unlike Backpage.com, Seattle Weekly requires ID from those depicted in sex-related ads in its pages.

Critics estimate that Village Voice Media makes more than $22 million per year from sex-related ads, a figure the Phoenix-based company has not disputed.

Shared Hope International, an anti-sex-trafficking group headed by former U.S. Rep. Linda Smith of Washington state, has compiled a list of dozens of cases in 15 states in which girls were allegedly offered for sex on Backpage.com, most within the past year. The Seattle Police Department says it has linked 22 cases of child prostitution since 2010 to girls who were advertised as escorts on the website.

Backpage.com has been the nation’s leading source of online sex escort ads since Craigslist.org shuttered its adult services section in September 2010.

Lawmakers struggled to craft legislation going after Backpage.com that complies with the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, which grants broad protections to websites for speech made by third parties.

Steve Suskin, a lawyer for Village Voice Media, has said that the new law plainly runs afoul of federal rules that grant broad protections to websites for speech made by others. Village Voice Media has vowed to contest the law.

The company also notes that Backpage.com works with various law enforcement agencies to weed out suspected cases of child sex trafficking that occur on the site.

Other sex trafficking bills the governor signed into law Thursday would crack down on selling those with mental disabilities for sex, go after individuals profiting from a minor engaging in a sexual performance, and target people who lure minors away from bus stops and other transportation hubs for nefarious purposes.

Among other bills Gregoire signed into law was one requiring counties to determine whether juveniles admitted to detention facilities are developmentally disabled and another allowing for the creation of county juvenile gang courts similar to one in already existing in Yakima County.

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