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Wagner Takes Aim At Publications Faciliating Sex Trafficking

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

There was a time when Katie Rhoades was sold for sex out of nightclubs, strip clubs, magazines and online websites. She was part of an estimated $45 million industry of what she called “selling human beings online.” 

“It’s a lot of money, said Rhoades, the founder of the Healing Action Network. “It’s a lot of economic incentive to keep this industry going.”

Rhoades said it’s crucial that third-party facilitators of prostitution are held accountable. That’s why she’s supportive of Rep. Ann Wagner’s legislation taking aim at publications advertising human trafficking.

During a press conference Thursday at the Old Courthouse downtown, Wagner, R-Ballwin, touted the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act.It would empower prosecutors to go after advertisers who knowingly profit from sex trafficking.

“I hope it serves as a deterrent. I hope they stop doing what they’re doing,” Wagner said. “But if not, we will prosecute them and give prosecutors on both a state and federal level the ability to go after them in court.”

The bill targets publications like Backpage.com, an online classifieds site that’s been accused of advertising underage prostitutes. And Rhodes said there’s a benefit to going after such publications in federal court.

“Human trafficking can be prosecuted at the state level or the federal level,” Rhoades said. “Currently, the federal statute is what is the strongest. It gives federal prosecutors just one more piece.”

Backpage.com has vigorously fought similar laws on a state level. Last year, afederal judge issued an injunction against a New Jersey law “to knowingly publish, disseminate or display an advertisement with photographs promoting sex with a minor.”

Federal Judge Dennis Cavanaugh wrote that while there is “a great public interest in preventing and prosecuting human trafficking and child prostitution,” he also understood “the great necessity of upholding constitutional protections.” Among other things, he said the law likely violated the First Amendment.

Wagner says the bill’s been vetted with the U.S. Department of Justice and legal groups. She says it will withstand constitutional muster.

“We’re protecting First Amendment rights and third party users,” Wagner said. “But those that are out there making money and profiting … by trafficking young girls and children and others who are held against their will will be prosecuted with this law.”

Rhoades said she’s “pretty much certain” the bill will be challenged constitutionally. But she added she’s trusted the attorneys on Wagner’s team have done their due diligence.

“This is more of a regulating advertisement issue versus a free speech issue,” Rhoades said. “And we do regulate advertisements. We regulate advertisements on tobacco and child pornography and alcohol. So, if we keep it the way it’s designed as just a tool to regulate advertisements, then I think it will pass.”

Wagner is hoping the bill makes it through Congress by Mother’s Day. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.