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Bill repeals unconstitutional criminal libel, slander laws

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   UTAH   ·   Libel   ·   March 20, 2007

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   UTAH   ·   Libel   ·   March 20, 2007


Bill repeals unconstitutional criminal libel, slander laws

  • The governor signed a bill last week that repealed the state’s criminal libel and slander statutes, but a state law that criminalizes defamation remains intact.

March 20, 2007  ·   Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman finally repealed a 131-year-old criminal libel and slander laws last week but left a very similar criminal defamation law on the books.

The criminal libel and slander laws, which the Utah Supreme Court declared unconstitutionally overbroad in the 2002 case In re I.M.L., made it a crime to “intentionally and with a malicious intent to injure” publish libelous statements or to “orally, falsely and knowingly” imply that a female was unchaste. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the I.M.L. case.

However, since Utah’s criminal defamation statute was not repealed, it is still a crime to “knowingly” communicate by speech or writing any information that one “knows to be false and knows will tend to expose any other living person to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.”

The terms defamation, libel and slander are often use synonymously. Written defamatory language can result in an action for libel, while spoken defamatory language can result in an action for slander.

Even in the absence of a criminal defamation, libel or slander statute, a person who has been defamed can sue the writer or speaker of the defamatory falsehood for money damages.

Utah state Sen. Scott D. McCoy, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation repealing the criminal libel and slander statutes, sponsored similar legislation in 2006 that called for the repeal of the defamation statute as well.

However, McCoy said that his “Republican colleagues would not budge” and insisted that defamation statute be left on the books since that law was not addressed in the Lake case.

“I decided that I wouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” McCoy said, “so I took the criminal defamation statute out and went after the libel and slander laws.”

McCoy, who is an attorney in Salt Lake City as well as a state senator, said that he is hopeful that the criminal defamation statute will be repealed in the future and is willing to fight the law on both fronts.

“When I put on my legislator hat, I’m going to try and convince the legislation that we need to repeal the criminal defamation statute,” he said. “When I put on my practicing attorney hat, if any charges arise from that statute, I am willing to challenge it on constitutional grounds.”

(S.B. 86)ES

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