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Your Turn: Should Insults Be Illegal?

Should defamation be a crime?

by Countable | 12.24.18

  • A man was arrested earlier this year for making disparaging comments online about a retiring police officer.
  • He was charged under a New Hampshire law that criminalizes defamation.
  • Such laws are on the books in 25 states.

Details

New Hampshire’s law says:

“A person is guilty of a class B misdemeanor if he purposely communicates to any person, orally or in writing, any information which he knows to be false and knows will tend to expose any other living person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit this month arguing that criminal defamation laws violate the First Amendment. The ACLU says these laws “literally make it a crime to say mean things about people.”

The ACLU’s position is that “civil lawsuits are fully capable of addressing the harms caused by defamation,” and that public officials in states that have criminal defamation statutes frequently “use them to prosecute their critics.” The group provides a number of examples, noting that “a disproportionate number of criminal defamation convictions have involved politicians and law enforcement officials.”

An article in The Economist argues that defamation laws are necessary, but that they must be narrowly tailored to prevent the sort of abuse the ACLU alleges:

“The proper purpose of defamation laws is to deter and punish malicious lies. Courts can order compensation for any material injury. However, in dozens of countries defamation is not just a civil offence, but a crime (see article). In such places, criticising a powerful politician or businessman, publicising wrongdoing or merely expressing an opinion can lead to bankruptcy or jail, regardless of whether the criticism actually hurts anyone.”

The New Hampshire case

An article in The Atlantic provides a full overview of the events that led up to the current charges in New Hampshire against Robert Frese. He had a long history of run-ins with the local police over various posts he made online, including alleging that a local life-coaching business was “a scam.” The article continues:

“Then, on May 4, 2018, a local newspaper published a soft feature article headlined ‘Retiring Exeter Officer’s Favorite Role: Mentoring Youth.’… The newspaper posted the article to its Facebook page. That’s when Frese commented, calling the subject of the article ‘the dirtiest most corrupt cop that I have ever had the displeasure of knowing.’ He added that the ‘coward’ police chief did nothing about it.”

Frese’s ire toward this particular police officer stemmed from a traffic stop several years prior. He continued to post similar comments on the Facebook post. The police decided to charge him with a crime.

What do you think?

Should defamation be a crime? Why or why not? Tell your reps what you think, then share your thoughts below.

—Sara E. Murphy

(Image Credit: iStock.com / drante

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