State legislators in Colorado are attempting to repeal a bizarre criminal libel statute, written in 1880, which criminalizes the act of printing malicious lies about other people.
According to a recent report from The Durango Herald, criminal libel recently became a hot topic in Colorado after 44-year-old Davis T. Stephenson was sentenced to prison for sending false, malicious stories on official letterhead to the friends and family of his perceived foes.
Stephenson reportedly harassed professors, landlords, and other people he disliked through these messages, which culminated in a fake obituary sent to a newspaper claiming that a jail guard had passed away due to AIDS.
Sources indicate that Stephenson was convicted on 26 different felony charges, including criminal libel, which is a felony under Colorado state law. Stephenson is one of only four people in the history of Colorado to serve prison time for a criminal libel conviction.
Aside from Stephenson, however, there is a much more sympathetic character who played a bigger role in the legislature’s change of mind on the issue of criminal libel.
In 2003, Tom Mink, then a student at the University of Northern Colorado, was subjected to a search of his house and a police seizure of his computer after a professor complained to the local district attorney about a satirical newspaper written by Mink.
Mink was never convicted on the criminal libel charges, and he actually won $425,000 from a civil lawsuit against the overzealous prosecutors who brought the initial criminal charges.
Thus, by passing the bill overturning the criminal libel laws, Colorado legislators would do far more than simply allow disgruntled loudmouths like Stephenson to continue their odd behavior.
On the contrary, overturning the criminal libel statute would serve to buttress the strength of free speech in Colorado, according to the sponsors of Senate Bill 102.
Sources indicate that legislators believe the bill will sweep through both houses of the Colorado legislature with little resistance.
Under the proposed law, libel—which is the act of printing malicious lies about others—could still be punished through civil courts. Private citizens who are injured by the false words of others will still be able to seek legal relief through civil lawsuits.
The current bill would only de-criminalize the act of libel, not sanction it as socially or culturally acceptable. And, if the bill passes, it will bring Colorado’s views on criminal libel into alignment with the laws of most other states.