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Where’s the First Amendment when you need it?

June 6, 2018

62-year-old Exeter (N.H.) resident Robert Frese claims that the local police have been targeting him for years, and he decided he’d had enough. So he posted a comment online claiming that Exeter Police Chief William Shupe “covered up for a dirty cop.”

Ever mindful of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, the Exeter police then arrested Frese and charged him with criminal defamation of character.

One word: Seriously?

The statute under which the charge was brought makes it a Class B misdemeanor when a person “purposely communicates to any person, orally or in writing, any information which he knows to be false and knows will tend to expose any other living person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule.”

I’m guessing this prosecution will never get off the ground. What was it that the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in the landmark defamation case of New York Times v. Sullivan? Ah yes: “[D]ebate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” and “may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

Adds the New Hampshire chapter of the ACLU, “[e]ven in civil cases, public officials must meet a stringent standard in order to recover damages for defamatory statements. Allowing criminal prosecutions for such statements would give the government too much power to censor its critics, and would inevitably chill political speech lying at the heart of the First Amendment.”

 

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