ST. LOUIS | A girl who ran away from home and became a prostitute at age 14 is suing Village Voice Media, accusing the newspaper conglomerate of knowingly allowing her pimp to advertise her sexual services on one of its companies' websites.
The lawsuit, which does not name the plaintiff, was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in St. Louis and seeks at least $150,000 in damages.
The girl's pimp, Latasha Jewell McFarland, 27, of St. Louis, pleaded guilty to prostitution charges in federal court earlier this month and could face up to five years in prison at sentencing on Dec. 1. Prosecutors say the girl ran away from her St. Louis home and met McFarland in 2009.
They say McFarland persuaded the girl to work as a prostitute by telling her she could earn $100 for each sex act, and that McFarland took half the proceeds. McFarland admitted she posted nude photos of the girl online, bought condoms, arranged meetings and drove the teen to hotels. Prosecutors said she also encouraged the teen to go to parties where men would pay for sex with multiple women.
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In her lawsuit, the girl claims that backpage.com, a website similar to Craigslist that is owned by Village Voice Media, knew prostitution was being facilitated on the site but did nothing to stop it. She contends items advertising sex with her were posted on the site.
The girl's attorney, Robert Pedroli, said other lawsuits over online sex ads have failed because the Communications Decency Act says online content providers are not responsible for what others post. But he said this lawsuit takes a different approach, alleging that websites like backpage.com provide a "safe house" for pimps and customers to arrange child prostitution.
"We're alleging they absolutely know that prostitution is on the website, that minors are being posted on the website," Pedroli said.
Phoenix-based Village Voice Media did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.
Earlier this month, Craigslist shut down its adult services section under pressure from state attorneys general who were concerned that it was being used to promote prostitution.
The Rebecca Project for Human Rights was among the groups pressuring Craigslist to block adult services ads. Executive director Malika Saada Saar said Friday that the St. Louis girl's story is far too common.
"If these sites do not see their obligation to protecting children, there ought to be a legal approach," she said. "When we have children being sold online for sex at legitimate websites, this is a human rights issue."
In addition to backpage.com, Village Voice Media operates 14 alternative publications, including the Village Voice in New York and the Riverfront Times in St. Louis.