Aug 14, 2015

Georgia Formally Repeals Criminal Libel

Georgia has formally repealed its criminal defamation statute, Ga. Code § 16-11-40, 23 years after it was held unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court.

The move came two months after Minnesota's Court of Appeals held that state's criminal defamation statute unconstitutional. Several other states' criminal libel laws have been held unconstitutional in recent years, including Colorado and Washington.

But while a court declaration that a statute is unconstitutional essentially prevents any prosecutions under it, it still remains "on the books" and unsavvy police and prosecutors may invoke it to execute arrests or bring charges, before the cases are inevitably dismissed. So Colorado (2012); Washington (2009); Utah (2007, although another remains); and Puerto Rico (2005) have all repealed their statutes in recent years.

The Georgia repeal came in a bill, House Bill 252, which repealed obsolete and outdated provisions and those held unconstitutional. The law was signed by the governor in May and became effective July 1, 2015.

I actually did not include Georgia in my running tally of states with potentially viable criminal defamation laws, because of the Georgia Supreme Court's decision (in Williamson v. State, 249 Ga. 851, 295 S.E.2d 305 (1982)). So there are still 13 states with criminal defamation laws on the books that have not been declared unconstitutional and thus remain viable in some circumstances, at least in theory. These states are Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

It is long past time for the remaining states to repeal these archaic provisions.


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