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Georgia lawmakers repeal archaic criminal defamation law

By Matt J. Duffy, SPJ Georgia member, and member of SPJGA First Amendment, FOI and Ethics Committee

On July 1, Georgia quietly removed its criminal libel statutes from the books, ensuring that no public official can put a speaker in jail simply because they don’t like their speech.

The statute hadn’t been used in Georgia in decades. But, the opportunity for abuse has led many U.S. states to eliminate the archaic law from their legislation.

Criminal defamation laws–in which the police or prosecutors can issue a criminal charge for unpopular or offensive speech–have historically been used to squelch criticism of the government. In 1988, a South Carolina journalist spent two nights in jail after being charged with criminal defamation for political reasons.

News of the repeal was met with praise in free speech circles including the International Press Institute, a Vienna-based organization that monitors press freedom around the globe.

“IPI welcomes the state of Georgia’s decision to repeal criminal defamation, which remains a powerful tool to silence critical voices around the world,” Scott Griffen, IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes, said. “In 1964, in the case Garrison v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court suggested that criminal defamation could no longer be justified in a modern, democratic society. The remaining U.S. states where defamation remains a criminal offense should now follow Georgia’s lead and the spirit of the Supreme Court’s ruling more than 50 years ago, helping to ensure that the United States continues to set a strong example in terms of legal protections for the press and other speakers exercising their freedom of expression.”

An IPI study explored the issue and found that criminal defamation charges are more commonplace than may be expected. Many cases involve individuals rather than journalists, which helps explain why they aren’t widely noticed.

The law in Georgia was repealed as part of House Bill 252 during the 2014-2015 legislative session. The bill contained a large number of legislative fixes to “repeal obsolete and outdated provisions.” The legislation was named in honor of the late Rep. Calvin Jackson who initiated the project to collect and repeal outdated laws in 2013. He died later that year.

A 1982 Georgia Supreme Court ruling, Williamson v. Georgia (1982), had declared the criminal defamation law unconstitutional, but the law remained on the books until this July 1. Repealing the law is important because it removes the chances that a state official would mistakenly employ, unaware of the high court’s ruling.

Colorado repealed their criminal defamation statute in 2012 after a district attorney approved a raid of a college student’s house on a criminal libel warrant. A professor had complained to police after the student doctored his photo with a Hitler mustache and published it on the Web. The DA authorized a search warrant and police raided the student’s house and seized his computer. The federal government stopped the prosecution on First Amendment grounds, and the district attorney’s office had to pay a $425,000 settlement.

The United States inherited our criminal libel laws from the British who regularly used the charge to quiet journalists and other critics. With Georgia’s revocation, 23 states still hold criminal defamation laws, according to the First Amendment Center. (Despite repealing its law in 2012, Colorado is still listed on the site.)

In the U.S. for the last few decades, defamation allegations–in which people are legitimately pursuing the protection of their reputations–have overwhelmingly been handled with civil lawsuits and financial damages, rather the threat of jail.

Overseas, criminal libel is one of the favorite tools of authoritarian regimes. If you hear about a journalist being arrested, there’s a good chance that criminal libel is the charge. Hopefully, the rest of the US states will follow Georgia’s lead and repeal their criminal defamation statutes.

Matt Duffy Mug

Matt Duffy

Matt Duffy teaches journalism and media law at Kennesaw State University. To contact Duffy email him at  mattjduffy@gmail.com. 

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