Connecticut lawmakers are proposing a bill that would hold employees of newspapers and websites criminally liable if they publish escort ads that sexually exploit minors.
House Bill 5504, proposed by Rep. Jeffrey Berger, a Waterbury Democrat and retired city police officer, would require publishers to verify the age of those featured in the ads. If they violate the law, they could face one to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Proponents acknowledge the measure may face a legal challenge on constitutional grounds but say the problem of minors ensnared in the sex trade is so grave, they are confident it will be upheld. They note that child prostitution is not protected by the First Amendment.
“Let the challenge come forward. I think we’re on the right side of this one,” said James Amann, the former House Speaker who hosted a press conference at the legislative office building this morning. Amann was joined by Raymond Bechard, an author who wrote a book about the sex trade on the Berlin Turnpike, and a woman who said she was coerced into prostitution. She declined to provide her full name, identifying herself only as Katell.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal also participated in the press conference and pledged to do whatever he could on the federal level to support the effort. As state attorney general, he led a coalition of his peers to pressure Craigslist.org to rid its sites of prostitution ads.
“Anyone who says it is a victimless crime is just plain wrong,” Blumenthal said. “It is a scourge that exploits and ruins lives of countless individuals. We need to do everything possible to stop it.”
The proponents of the bill specifically cited the Hartford Advocate, an alternative weekly newspaper owned by New Mass Media and managed by the Hartford Courant, as well as several websites, including Backpage.com, a subsidiary of the Village Voice newspaper, that runs escort ads.
CT1 Media, the local consortium of Tribune company properties in Connecticut, including the Courant and the Advocate newspapers, “strongly supports the efforts of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee to combat the sexual exploitation of minors in newspaper print advertisements,” the consortium said in a statement.
“The current bill…being offered by the committee, as-written, is problematic due to concerns of constitutionality, enforcement and the inability of newspaper publishers to comply. However, CT1 Media seeks to find a workable alternative that protects the under-aged from potential sexual predators,” the company said.
Following the press conference, the legislature’s judiciary committee held a hearing on the bill.
Chris VanDeHoef, the executive director for the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, said the group backs the goal of the legislation, but the bill, as currently drafted, is unworkable. One possible solution would be to require a copy of the id of anyone featured in an escort ad, VanDeHoef said.
“Sexual exploitation and trafficking are serious and heinous crimes that we do not support in any form,” VanDeHoef wrote in written testimony submitted to the committee. “It is our hope that we can achieve workable language while still successfully protecting those at risk.”
No state currently has a similar law on its books, but lawmakers in Washington state passed a similar measure earlier this month; it has yet to be signed by Gov. Christine Gregoire.
Proponents say Connecticut has the opportunity to be a leader on the issue.
“This legislation will protect the future of countless young people in Connecticut by reducing the demand for all those who seek to destroy their lives,” said Bechard, author of “The Berlin Turnpike: A True Story of Human Trafficking in America.”
But even if the bill is not passed, supporters say they hope the discussion will shed light on the emotional and physical devastation experienced by the victims of the underage sex trade.
The ads are very public but the impact of prostitution on its victims is less visible, said Katell.
“No one knows what the men who buy us do to us,” she said. “How they pay to use our bodies anyway they like, how they humiliate and degrade our spirits, and how they shop for us in the newspaper or on the computer as though they were buying another cheap gadget.”