In the world these days, where everyone’s a journalist, it behooves the same everyone — at least in Colorado — to know about an arcane law that could send you to the pokey for writing something insulting about someone and thereby exposing them to “public hatred, contempt or ridicule.” The latest case of criminal libel has been filed over a guy who allegedly ranted and raved about his ex-girlfriend and her attorney and posted it on Craigslist.
The usual recourse for people who feel they have been unfairly targeted by nasty and untrue things being written about them is to sue in civil court. And if they win, they potentially get lots of money. But Colorado is one of 17 states with a criminal libel statute on the books. It’s a law that dates to the 1800s, and, though rarely used, allows district attorneys to file criminal charges against people who they deem have unfairly attacked someone with the mighty pen — or computer.
According to the Associated Press, last month Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson charged J.P. Weichel, 40, of Loveland with criminal libel after he posted nastygrams on Craigslist about his former lover and her attorney. Weichel reportedly said he was just “venting.”
The charge follows a Pueblo case last month in which Robert Ezekiel Tafoya, 51, was charged with criminal libel after he allegedly doctored photos of someone, in effect sticking that person’s head on the body of someone or something else. In a report in the Pueblo Chieftain, District Attorney Bill Thiebaut refused to elaborate on exactly what the doctored photos depicted, other than to say they cast Tafoya’s accuser “in a compromising position.”
And in Durango, Davis T. Stephenson, 41, was convicted of more than 30 crimes, including criminal libel. The false statements he was convicted of making included calling a college professor a sexual deviant and sending a bogus obituary to an Alaska newspaper claiming a living person had died of AIDS, according to the Chieftain.
One of the most publicized cases of criminal libel in Colorado occurred in 2004. Then a Weld County district attorney went after a University of Northern Colorado student in Greeley who published a satire sheet called the Howling Pig, which, among other things, depicted someone with a name similar to that of a UNC professor as resembling long-tongued Gene Simmons of the rock band KISS. Those charges were dismissed after the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado intervened.