DENVER (AP) – Criminal libel is one of the oldest laws in Colorado’s books – and one of the least often used. But in an age when almost anyone has the power to be a publisher, it’s a law that can still pack a punch.
Just ask the former college student who got in trouble for poking fun at a college professor online. Or a man who faced jail time after making nasty comments about an ex-girlfriend online.
Few states still have criminal libel provisions, which can land someone in the slammer for publishing or broadcasting false and defamatory statements about another. Libel is far more often a civil matter.
And a Colorado state senator is looking to get the little-used law tossed, saying it dates back to the late 19th century and is woefully out of date. “I think it tramples on the First Amendment rights of people to write, and or post online things that they want to post, and so I’m just seeking to strike the statute. Pretty plain and simple,” said Sen. Greg Brophy, a Republican from Colorado’s Eastern Plains.
He has support from the ACLU and Colorado Press Association.
But the District Attorney’s Council is remaining neutral on the legislation. Tom Raynes, the organization’s executive director, said the law sometimes has a place.
“If I sue somebody who has nothing, that’s not much of a remedy for me,” he said.
In Colorado the law has been used seven times in the last two years and in some cases, the original charge of libel is changed to something else, like harassment.
J.P. Weichel was charged in 2008 with felony criminal libel and faced 18 months in prison.
Prosecutors said Weichel posted about his ex-girlfriend on Craigslist, saying she traded sexual favors for legal services from her attorney. Weichel told authorities he was just venting.
He ultimately pleaded guilty to harassment, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to 60 hours of community service and four years of probation.
Brophy, the bill’s sponsor, also cites the case involving Tom Mink as an example of why criminal libel should be repealed.
Mink and some friends at the University of Northern Colorado wrote a satirical blog about a decade ago, featuring columns supposedly written by finance professor Junius Peake – whom Mink and his friends renamed “Junius Puke” and made him their newsletter’s “mascot.”
Peake had nothing to do with the site or its content.
“And of course he caught wind of the fact that we were using him as a mascot, and he got super tweezed about it and tried to pursue charges,” said Mink, now 32.
Authorities showed up with a search warrant at his mother’s house and took his computer, threatening criminal libel charges.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado stepped in to get Mink’s computer back and prosecutors chose not to file charges. Mink also sued the Weld County District Attorney’s office through the ACLU and got a $425,000 settlement last year.
Denise Maes, ACLU public policy director, said the dozen or so states that still have criminal libel statutes rarely use them and that the laws challenge free speech.
“That statute has clearly run its course,” she said.
Steve Zansberg, an attorney for the Colorado Press Association, said that even if the law is rarely used, the fact that it exists and can be used at any time creates a chilling effect.
Zansberg said Colorado’s criminal libel law is “hopelessly vague” and unconstitutional because it allows for prosecutors to potentially charge someone for making an opinion. He also notes that the most recent criminal libel cases in Colorado involved people who posted something online.
“We think it’s completely contrary our modern notions of freedom of speech,” he said.
LINK: Read Senate Bill 102
- By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
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