DENVER – State legislators are moving to repeal an obscure crime that can send people to jail for words they write.
It’s called criminal libel, and some of the few people who know it exists come from the Four Corners.
Davis T. Stephenson, 44, a former Fort Lewis College student, is serving prison time for criminal libel and several other harassment-related crimes against his professors, landlord and other local people. He is one of only four people in Colorado to do time on a criminal libel conviction, according to the Department of Corrections.
Stephenson was convicted of sending untrue, malicious stories on official letterhead to the friends and family of people he disliked. In one case, he sent a fake obituary to a newspaper saying a jail guard had died of AIDS.
Davis is serving time in state prison in Sterling for 26 felony convictions, including criminal libel, a Class 6 felony. His next parole hearing is in October.
But lawmakers had a much different case in mind when they started debating a repeal of the law last week.
Tom Mink, a former University of Northern Colorado student, had his house searched and computer seized in 2003 when a professor complained to the district attorney about Mink’s satirical newsletter, The Howling Pig.
Mink was never charged, and last December, he won $425,000 in a civil lawsuit against the prosecutors, who promised never to charge him with criminal libel again.
“This is an 1880 statute. Think about this in the day and age of Facebook,” said Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray.
Brophy’s Senate Bill 102 is speeding through the Legislature without opposition.
It could pass the Senate as soon as Monday.
Libel – printing malicious lies about someone else – can be grounds for a lawsuit, and Brophy’s bill does nothing to change the civil infraction. But it’s not right that the government can threaten to lock up someone based on speech, he said.
A defendant in a civil libel case can get off the hook if what he wrote was true. But the criminal libel statute does not allow truth as a defense for statements “tending to blacken the memory of the dead and libels tending to expose the natural defects of the living.”
That exception exposes a lot of people to possible prosecution, Brophy said.
“The lefty blogger who wrote that I was short, stupid and ugly would have been covered by this,” he said.
In a rare show of agreement on criminal statutes, the state attorney general’s office, the state public defender and the American Civil Liberties Union came out in support of Brophy’s bill.
“It’s time to repeal this law,” Deputy Attorney General Michael Dougherty said. “Criminal prosecution is not the only or appropriate remedy for libel.”
Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said that in cases of severe behavior, the state still has criminal laws against harassment and victims could get restraining orders.
“Hard to think in the modern day and age that someone might face criminal prosecution for exercising what a lot of us think are free-speech rights,” Carroll said.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, voted for the bill in the Judiciary Committee.