Craiglist rant man on criminal libel rap
Falls foul of 'rarely used' Colorado statute
A Colorado man who allegedly made anonymous postings on a Craigslist forum attacking his former girlfriend faces two criminal libel raps with a maximum tariff of 18 months' jail, the Los Angeles Times reports.
J.P. Weichel, 40, was locked in a custody dispute with his ex-partner over their daughter when he "vented" on the "rants and raves" forum - suggesting that she "abused her child and concealed it from social workers, committed welfare fraud and worked for a 'crooked' Fort Collins lawyer whom she sexually serviced".
Some postings referred to the woman by name, and were "laced with crude references to her body". She contacted police in December last year, who traced the material to a computer Weichel "had access to". In August, officers questioned him at his workplace, and on 21 October Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson filed charges against the accused.
The DA's move is significant because Colorado is one of a "dwindling number" of US states to have a criminal libel law - a statute which "dates to the 19th century and is rarely used". The Los Angeles Times explains: "In civil libel cases, truth is the best defense and the dead cannot be libeled. But Colorado's criminal statute holds that it is illegal to 'blacken the memory of one who is dead'. Truth is not a defense in such cases, or in ones that 'expose the natural defects of one who is alive'."
Gregory Lisby, a communications professor at Georgia State University, said the 17 states that still have such statutes "had simply not updated laws from English common law". He described criminal libel prosecutions as deploying "a sledgehammer when a scalpel would do the same trick".
David Lane, a First Amendment lawyer in Denver, chipped in with: "It's shocking the statute exists, and that someone's even using it is more shocking."
Accordingly, several lawyers have insisted the case "should be handled in civil court", and that "bringing the government into the dispute is a troubling infringement on free speech". Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said: "Being a jerk isn't necessarily grounds for felony prosecution."
Abrahamson, however, defended: "This is what the Legislature of the state of Colorado has determined is criminal. We're obligated to enforce the laws in the state of Colorado." ®