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Sen. Kohl-Welles not about to give up on human-trafficking battle

Seattle, WA|Heroes & Activism|Add Comment
By: John Stang, Crosscut
Washington Legislator Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles

It was a notorious murder in her second year as a state representative that turned Jeanne Kohl-Welles into the Washington Legislature's point-woman on human trafficking issues.

In 1995, Timothy Blackwell shot and killed four people in the King County Courthouse, including his Filipina mail-order bride Susana, whom he abused. A similar case materialized in 2000 when Indle King Jr. helped strangle his Russian mail order bride, Anastasia.

Those cases, combined with her experience as a University of Washington sociology instructor and the former instructor of courses about children and sex in her earlier days in California, prompted Kohl-Welles — now a Democratic state senator from Seattle — to steadily introduce at least 10 human trafficking bills almost annually with the help of others. 

"Human trafficking" was not even a common term in the mid-1990s, when Kohl-Welles joined the state senate. "You delve into it and find out it's bigger than you imagined," she said.

How big? According to a 2012 legislative report, 300 to 500 children were exploited for sex in the Seattle area in 2008 and at least 22 children were advertised for sex online between 2010 and 2012.

In 2012, Kohl-Welles introduced two human trafficking bills that were successfully signed into law. The first, SSB 5546, outlaws recruiting, transporting and using people for forced labor, involuntary servitude and commercial sex. The other law would outlaw advertising minors for sex. The Legislature passed both bills unanimously.

The second bill, ESSB 6251, was aimed at Backpage.com, whose national online advertising includes sex ads; some of which some have been linked to underage prostitutes. Village Voice Media — until recently, the owner of Seattle Weekly — owns Backpage.com. Last September, it sold Seattle Weekly and its other alternative weeklies to a group of managers from Village Voice Media Holdings, who formed the Voice MediaGroup.

Last month, a federal judge in Seattle struck down the new sex advertising law, agreeing with the arguments of the plaintiff, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF argued that the law is unconstitutional because it violates the Federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, targeting an online service provider — Backpage.com — rather than the people using the service. The Communications Decency Act provides immunity to online service providers, a plank that has survived similar challenges in New York and Pennsylvania.

This year, Kohl-Welles plans to introduce a bill to repeal the unconstitutional 2012 law, and to replace it with a similar law that overcomes the legalese hurdle posed by the Communications Decency Act. She speculated that legal descriptions or disclaimers could be required for such ads, which would then give prosecutors some teeth in chasing after the advertisers.

She'd also like to see the state House and Senate send a joint letter to President Obama and Congress, urging them to update the 1996 Communications Decency Act to reflect the Internet world of 2013.

"We're not going to stop everybody," said Kohl-Welles, "but you do what you can do with statutes and penalties."

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