ST. LOUIS (AP) - Rep. Ann Wagner unveiled new legislation on Thursday that would make publishing online prostitution ads a felony under the federal criminal code.
The first-term Republican representative from St. Louis County is a sponsor of the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act. The proposed law is aimed at websites that post third-party ads for massages, body rubs, escort services and other thinly veiled references to prostitution. She particularly singled out the website Backpage.com, a top forum for such activity since Craigslist shut down its adult services section in 2010.
"We're taking steps toward ending what I would call modern-day slavery," she said during a news conference at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis - the historic building where 19th century slave Dred Scott fought to gain his freedom. "The problem is real. And it's hiding in plain sight."
Current federal law protects such Internet sites from liability under the Communications Decency Act. But the provision provides an exemption for federal criminal law, and Wagner says her proposal has been vetted by the U.S. Justice Department to avoid possible First Amendment challenges that could cite restrictions on free speech. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, held an announcement in Chicago on Monday to promote similar legislation.
Several states have also sought to crack down on online sex ads, citing their use as virtual marketplaces for teens forced into prostitution. Judges in Connecticut, New Jersey and Washington state have overturned those state laws as unconstitutional.
Officials with Backpage.com, including its general counsel, could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday. The company has said it shares the commitment to fight human trafficking with aggressive electronic filters that flag ads referring to minors. The company says it forwards hundreds of ads each month to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Wagner and St. Louis County police administrators were joined by a dozen local activists, including two former prostitutes. Earlier this week, Wagner was the keynote speaker at a national conference in St. Louis on sex trafficking. A key initiative of that effort is to pressure hotels to help track victims of sexual exploitation who may be using their rooms.