Criminal Defamation: Is It Still A Thing In The United States?

Criminal DefamationCriminal defamation doesn’t command many headlines these days — at least not in the United States — which is why a recent Louisiana scuffle has legal tongues wagging.

Blogger Bashes Sheriff; Sheriff Vows To “Come After” People Who “Print Lies”

It’s a tale as old as law: one person suspects another person of corruption, and then publically — albeit anonymously — shares their concerns. Ancient Romans sent whispers via wax tablets; these days, people blog. And one such Louisiana blogger, on a mission to root out corruption, set sights on the local sheriff.

Well, suffice it to say that the sheriff wasn’t impressed; he vowed to “come after” people who “printed lies.” And apparently, he wasn’t bluffing, because the Sheriff managed to secure a search warrant, for the house of the suspected blogger, from an off-duty judge who used an old criminal defamation statute to justify the order.

Even murkier? The judge that issued the warrant also turned out to be the presiding judge on the case. (Or, at least he was) — which had legal watchers and defamation attorneys wondering if the situation passed regulatory muster.

Criminal Defamation In The United States? Seems Unconstitutional.

Criminal defamation occupies a strange spot in U.S. law books. Back in the day, folks did land in jail for disparaging individuals or businesses (our ancestors also enjoyed a book or newspaper burning to get the point across). But as the country grew, so did its laws, and felony traducement was eventually deemed federally unconstitutional.

Over the years, most states have scrubbed criminal defamation statutes from the books, but a handful is holding out, which makes this situation intriguing: it’s an opportunity to see if states can, still, in 2016, evoke felony slander and libel charges.

The judge who issued the order believes Louisiana has every right to use the antiquated regulation, describing the state’s defamation laws as “pretty broad,” and further reasoning that law enforcement can”take a look-see at these computers that might have defamatory statements on them.”

UPDATE: Another judge declared the criminal defamation search warrant unconstitutional; the issue, apparently, has been dropped.

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