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Colorado repeals criminal libel law

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, April 19, 2012 - The International Press Institute (IPI) today welcomed news that the State of Colorado will decriminalise libel. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper on April 13 signed a bill to repeal the state's criminal libel law, effective Sep. 1.

IPI Acting Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: “We are very pleased to hear that Colorado has taken the positive step of removing libel from the state's criminal code. Originally intended to protect the monarchy or aristocracy from criticism or insults, criminal defamation laws today serve all too often to obstruct scrutiny of the actions of those holding power and to deprive the people of the information they need to make decisions that will affect their lives for years to come.”

Mirroring provisions in the state's civil law, Colorado's criminal libel statute makes it a crime to “knowingly publish or disseminate, either by written instrument, sign, pictures, or the like, any statement or object tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or to impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation or expose the natural defects of one who is alive, and thereby to expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule”.

Colorado State Senator Greg Brophy introduced a bill to repeal the law in February after former University of Northern Colorado (UNC) student Thomas Mink in December agreed to a $425,000 settlement of his lawsuit against an assistant district attorney who in 2003 approved a search warrant for the then-student's computer on criminal libel charges. The charges arose after Mink published altered pictures of UNC Professor Junius Peake on Mink's blog, The Howling Pig, depicting Peake with a Hitler moustache in makeup like that worn by Gene Simmons from the rock band K.I.S.S.

Mink captioned the photo “Junius Puke” and declared Puke the website's mascot. However, the website reportedly noted that Peake and Puke should not be confused, the former being “an outstanding member of the community as well as asset to the Monfort School of Business where he teaches about microstructure”. Peake complained to police in Greeley, Colo., who searched Mink's residence and confiscated his computer and other accessories under the warrant.

A federal judge blocked prosecutors from proceeding with criminal libel charges and a federal appeals court in 2011 ruled that Mink could proceed with a civil lawsuit against the prosecutor who signed off on the warrant, Susan Knox, for alleged violations of his constitutional rights. The settlement followed the ruling. Mink and the American Civil Liberties Union reportedly had hoped the federal appeals court would declare Colorado's criminal libel statute unconstitutional, but the court declined to rule on the issue as Mink was no longer being threatened with prosecution.

IPI strongly opposes treating defamation as a criminal offence and believes that civil remedies are both sufficient to achieve justice when defamation is alleged and in line with international standards that call for the least restrictive sanctions in such cases.

The organisation is currently leading an ongoing effort to abolish criminal defamation laws in the Caribbean, where archaic laws from the region's colonial past remain on the books in many nations. Such laws can be used by those in power to target and suppress legitimate news stories, or to punish journalists reporting on matters of public interest. Even applied in moderation, they often have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and impose punishments – including imprisonment, work bans and excessive fines – that are disproportionate to the “crime” committed.

IPI also plans as part of its 2012 World Congress, to release a study it commissioned academics at Indiana University to conduct examining the status of criminal defamation laws in the United States. While the United States has no federal criminal defamation law, a minority of states and territories still include such laws in their criminal codes. The enforceability of the respective laws, particularly against journalists, is questionable given court interpretations of the guarantee of freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

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