New Hampshire lawmakers did not run afoul of the Constitution in making it a crime to ridicule people with false statements, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the First Circuit held Tuesday. A concurring judge said it’s time for the Supreme Court to overrule its precedent in this area, reports Courthouse News Service. “The case could be a vehicle for the Supreme Court to revisit the doctrine of criminal defamation for the first time in more than 50 years,” said Jeffrey Hunt, a First Amendment expert in Salt Lake City. In 1964, the Supreme Court held that defamation can be a crime in the case of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who was prosecutted for verbally attacking a number of judges.
In a concurring opinion, Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson called it time to revisit that idea. Such laws “cannot be reconciled with our democratic ideals of robust debate and uninhibited free speech,” Thompson said. “These laws have their genesis in undemocratic systems that criminalized any speech criticizing public officials,” she added. “It strikes me as out of touch with reality to suggest these laws are not being selectively harnessed or that these laws aren't particularly susceptible to … abuse.” The ruling came after the Department of Homeland Security disbanded its Disinformation Governance Board, which had attempted unsuccessfully to federalize the policing of false statements. The New Hampshire case involves a comment posted online to a newspaper article. Robert Frese, 67, of Exeter accused a police officer and said the officer's daughter was a prostitute.
The charges were later dropped. Frese and the American Civil Liberties Union sued to strike down the law proscribing false statements that expose someone to “public hatred, contempt or ridicule.”