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Legislature will not repeal criminal defamation law

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Legislature will not repeal criminal defamation law

  • Following the convictions of two local newsmen, efforts by state legislators and free-press advocates to repeal Kansas’s criminal defamation law failed.

Feb. 19, 2003 — The Kansas Senate failed yesterday to adopt proposals that would have eliminated or significantly altered the state’s criminal defamation law, under which the editor and publisher of a local newspaper were convicted last year.

State Sen. Derek Schmidt (R-Independence) sponsored a bill that would have repealed the law, but after a debate by legislators yesterday, that measure was rejected.

Last year, David W. Carson and Edward H. Powers Jr., who publish the Kansas City-based newspaper The New Observer, were prosecuted for falsely reporting that a Wyandotte County mayor and a judge resided in another county in violation of law. Carson and Powers are appealing their conviction.

The case spurred debate over whether Kansas’s criminal defamation law should remain on the books.

Kansas is one of few states that has a criminal defamation statute. The law makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly spread false information about a person. The crime is punishable by up to a year in jail or a $2,500 fine.

Critics of the law say it is outdated and chills speech.

Edward Seaton, editor-in-chief of The Manhattan Mercury and former president of the Inter American Press Association, told the Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 21 that criminal defamation laws are “the hallmark of closed societies around the world.”

“Those of us who believe in democracy and campaign for free expression are frequently in the position of urging other countries to repeal their criminal defamation laws,” Seaton said. “The principle argument made to these governments is that enlightened societies simply do not imprison people for what they write. In societies governed by the rule of law rather than the whims of political strongmen, attacks on public officials are not met by arresting journalists.”

Proponents of the law argued yesterday that it provides a means for people to protect their reputations without having to bring an expensive civil lawsuit.

Rather than repeal the law entirely, the Senate could have added a provision prohibiting prosecution if the alleged defamed person were a public official. The legislature rejected that option, leaving the original law intact.

(S.B. 3) WT

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