Georgia has quietly removed its criminal libel law from the books, ensuring that no public official can put citizens and journalists in jail simply because they don’t like their comments.
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 and the Georgia Legislature followed suit in its 2014-15 session that concluded in April.
A 1982 Georgia Supreme Court ruling (Williamson v. Georgia) declared the state’s criminal defamation law unconstitutional yet it remained on the books. Repeal was important because it removed any chance a state official would unwittingly apply the law.
Criminal defamation laws are often 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 Georgia repeal was met with praise in free speech circles, including the International Press Institute, a Vienna-based organization that monitors press freedom.
“IPI welcomes the state of Georgia’s decision to repeal criminal defamation, which remains a powerful tool to silence critical voices around the world,” said Scott Griffen, IPI’s press freedom director.
Griffen noted the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a 1964 case (Garrison v. Louisiana) suggested criminal defamation was no longer justified in a modern, democratic society. He said the Georgia Legislature’s decision to repeal the state law helps “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The Georgia law was repealed as part of House Bill 252. The bill contained a large number of fixes to “repeal obsolete and outdated provisions.” It was named in honor of the late Rep. Calvin Jackson who fathered the initiative to collect and repeal outdated laws in 2013. He died later that year.
Colorado repealed their criminal defamation statute in 2012 after a district attorney approved a raid of a college student’s house on a criminal libel warrant.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’s is still listed on the site.)
In the U.S., defamation complaints are overwhelmingly pursued through civil lawsuits and financial damages rather than the threat of jail. Public officials and public figures have a higher burden of proof than private individuals.
Overseas, criminal libel is one of the favorite tools of authoritarian regimes. If you hear about a journalist being arrested in a foreign country, there’s a good chance that criminal libel is the charge.
Those U.S. states that still have criminal defamation laws should follow Georgia’s lead and repeal them.
Matt Duffy teaches journalism and media law at Kennesaw State University. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and wrote this article originally for the SPJ newsletter.